singing old-time gospel on four sides of a square: an introduction to sacred harp singing

Gospel singing might bring about a number of images to mind: modern mass choirs, fiery vintage small group gospel, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, James Brown (and Rev. James Cleveland) in Blues Brothers, old Southern gospel, or spiritual bluegrass. I think very few people would immediately think of Sacred Harp singing.

Alabama Sacred Harp Convention – Sherburne (mp3, recorded 1959, from Southern Journey, V. 9: Harp of a Thousand Strings, All Day Singing From the Sacred Harp)

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Sacred Harp is a form of shape note singing, which was developed as a form of notating music such that four shapes on either a line or a space indicate the eight notes of the scale, allowing easier sight-singing than standard notation. (See the scale graphic below.) Sacred Harp was a hymn book written using shape notes in 1850s. It’s been sung in pretty much the same way since that time, largely in the American South. If you’re curious on more of the details, check out this page on how Sacred Harp is sung.


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Alabama Sacred Harp Convention – Ocean (mp3, recorded 1959, from Southern Journey, V. 10: And Glory Shone Around, More All Day Singing From the Sacred Harp)

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I like the music and I like the idea of the music. Usually there is a different conductor for each song, conducting in the center of singers lining four sides of a box. The singers run through the melody tune once on solfege before running through the song once. They then move right on to the next conductor and the next song. There’s no practicing or rehearsing songs. My favorite idiosyncrasy in the style are that the singers just sing. There are usually no pretenses of being polished.

This is, in many ways, truly American music: democratic, individualistic and unpretentious. This is (usually) not music done for performance, not something practiced to death. People sing because they want to create the music, not because they want to be perfect. And the singers usually sing in their natural voices, not trying particularly hard to blend in perfectly with the group. That said, beautiful music comes out of Sacred Harp conventions and groups.

Henagar-Union Sacred Harp Convention – Invocation (mp3, recorded 2006, from I Belong to This Band: 85 Years of Sacred Harp Recordings)

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If you want more information, I’d encourage picking up any of the CDs I’ve plucked tracks from here. They’re all worthwhile, with my favorite being the first, Southern Journey, Vol. 9. There was also recently a documentary, Awake My Soul: the Story of the Sacred Harp that came out two years ago. I haven’t seen it yet, but from the trailer (below), it looks really interesting.

Lee Wells & His Jasper Alabama Sacred Harp Singers – North Point (mp3, recorded 1930, from I Belong to This Band: 85 Years of Sacred Harp Recordings)

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trailer for Awake My Soul: the Story of the Sacred Harp

For those that aren’t content just listening to the music, Sacred Harp singings still happen all over the country and right here in the Bay Area where you can join in singing. You can still buy the Sacred Harp book either at some of the singings or from the publisher.

And, as if that’s not enough proof that this music is still out there, there’s a compilation, Help Me to Sing of current artists coverings songs from the Sacred Harp. It will includes Elvis Perkins doing a version of “Weeping Pilgrim” which Perkins has been doing for a while (and that I’ve been previously impressed with). That compilation comes out October 14.

Update: For a limited time, you can watch Awake My Soul on Pitchfork.tv.



9 Responses to “singing old-time gospel on four sides of a square: an introduction to sacred harp singing”

  1. Sacred Harp Singer says:

    Just a couple of nits to pick, from a Sacred Harp singer of about fourteen years’ standing. We don’t have conductors in Sacred Harp; everyone who wants to gets to be a *leader.* And that first solfege runthrough [We call it “singing the notes” or “singing the shapes”] isn’t just of the melody, but includes all four parts. Finally, Sacred Harp isn’t gospel music, which developed much later than the Sacred Harp tradition and differs from it in important ways [e.g. close as opposed to open harmony, the common use of keyboards and other instruments, a lack of independently moving parts]. Glad to know of your interest in this wonderful music, though. I know the guy who’s putting *Help Me to Sing* together, and just recently discovered Elvis Perkins’s wonderful take on “Weeping Pilgrim.”

  2. adrian says:

    Thanks for your comments.

    Re: Conductors. I would call anyone that stands in front of a musical group, leads the tune, starts and ends the tune and keeps time a conductor. But I’ll talk about “leaders” in Sacred Harp in the future.

    Re: “melody”. I just misspoke. It’s corrected now.

    Re: “Gospel”. I think your idea of gospel is narrower than what’s generally considered gospel music. As you can see from the intro paragraph, I’m taking a pretty broad view of “Gospel” music that is more a thematic characterization (music that sings of the gospel) rather than a musical one.

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  4. […] was just talking about Sacred Harp music when I found out that there is an upcoming release of artists doing Sacred Harp songs. I’ve […]

  5. […] On Monday night I went over to Berkeley to try some Sacred Harp singing (more about that style previously). More about that […]

  6. […] Monday night I tried my hand at Sacred Harp singing. There are local groups that sing and I went to the one that meets weekly in Berkeley (Mondays from 7:30-9:30pm). I’ve written about Sacred Harp before. […]

  7. […] billed as it was, I was a bit surprised to see and hear a Sacred Harp group on stage. I’ve talked about Sacred Harp before and I even recognized one of the people on stage from the Berkeley’s Sacred Harp […]

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