Today I attended my first Sacred Harp Singing at Wofford College in Spartanburg. My experience was exhilarating, interesting and educational.
What, you may ask, is Sacred Harp singing? Sometimes it's known as Shape Note singing. It's a tradition of a cappella sacred choral music that was popular in America from the eighteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, and continues to be practiced today. Its notation uses the usual staffs and notes from conventional music, but instead of all the notes being ovals, different notes have different shapes. This notation was developed to help people without formal music training learn to sing multi-part hymns easily and accurately. The tradition today uses reprints of traditional hymnals, and some devotees still compose new hymns that use the traditional forms.
The traditional Sacred Harp books are not "revised" like the hymnals most churches use today, so the lyrics reflect American Christian beliefs popular when the songs were composed: the closeness of death, the need for salvation, the expectation of being united with loved ones in Heaven, the magnitude of Christ's sacrifice. These songs are not necessarily politically correct. For instance, since I was raised a Roman Catholic, I was particularly charmed by one hymn we sang today, The Romish Lady, in which a young woman defies her mother's teachings, ignores her priest and dares to read the Bible for herself.
At a Singing participants are divided into four groups: trebles, tenors, altos and bases. They sit on the four sides of the open square where the leader stands to lead each tune. The leader sets the pitch and tempo and selects the hymn. At our Singing, each leader led one song at a time in turn, in some cases a favorite, in other cases a song they'd not led, or even heard, before.
The sound of Sacred Harp music must be heard, for it's indescribable. It is polyphonic; it employs fourths and fifths, largely ignoring third intervals. To me it has a sort of "drone" to it. The hymn still in use that's closest to Sacred Harp music is Amazing Grace, but our current version of it is different from the versions in the Sacred Harp books. Attending a Singing felt to me like sitting inside an organ.
In the movie Cold Mountain, the congregation is played by experienced Sacred Harp singers and this clip gives you an idea of the sound. Notice that before the congregation sings the lyrics of the song, they "practice" the tune by singing its musical notes. Also, some of the congregation members keep time with their hands, just as the leader does. This clip is from an actual Singing rather than a Hollywood movie and gives a very authentic look at the experience.
So, why would I -- who really can't sing -- attend this event? The sound appeals to me. The music is visceral. A Singing is not a concert; it's participatory. I thought that if I spent a few hours literally singing my heart out I would find comfort and catharsis. I was right, but I also found wonderful, warm, friendly people -- and the altos were too nice to kick me out for my very inexpert efforts!
If my experience has piqued your interest, you might want to stream the video Sweet Is The Day: A Sacred Harp Family Portrait or rent the video Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp. And the Wikipedia article on Sacred Harp is informative.