“On any Sunday afternoon a traveler through the Deep South might chance upon the rich, full sound of Sacred Harp singing. Aided with nothing but their own voices and the traditional shape-note songbook, Sacred Harp singers produce a sound that is unmistakable―clear and full-voiced. Passed down from early settlers in the backwoods of the Southern Uplands, this religious folk tradition hearkens back to a simpler age when Sundays were a time for the Lord and the ‘singings.’”
– “The Sacred Harp: a Tradition and Its Music” by Buell E. Cobb, Jr.
“Aside from the Holy Bible, the book found oftenest in the homes of rural southern people is without a doubt the oblong book of song called ‘he Sacred Harp.’ It is not a church hymnal, though its contents are religious songs.”
– “The Story of the Sacred Harp, 1844-1944” by George Pullen Jackson
The Sacred Harp, an a cappella, Protestant-based singing style associated with the Southern United States, has a deep ancestry going back to England’s psalter hymnals and the influence of New England’s “Bay Psalm Book,” but the name, selection of songs, and the method are said to have begun with Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King’s The Sacred Harp, published in 1844.
Tunebooks, as they were called, were also published W. M. Cooper in 1902 and by Seaborn and Thomas Denson in 1936. Singing groups had their favorites as did areas of the country.
Books and Styles
Those who are used to the church hymnals in most protestant churches quickly notice several distinctive differences between the books supplied on the backs of their pews and the Sacred Harp books used at sings: The Sacred Harp books were oblong (landscape format) and feature easily identifiable shape notes to allow people to easily participate without any knowledge of standard musical notation.
While audiences can and do appear at Sacred Harp sings, the singers sing for their own needs and those of their group, all facing inward toward the leader who sets the tempo by raising his arms up and down rather like the conductor of a symphony. Many of the singers, especially those in the honored down-front sections of each section, often duplicate the leader’s arm motions help the group stay synchronized. Many people refer to this as fasola singing.
Sacred Harp is based on old hymns sung the old way. Changes in the music world–gospel and other modern styles, organ or piano accompaniment, stylistic variations of the melody and words–are said to dilute the music. As Buell writes, “The Sacred Harp is–in tone, in musical effect, in the themes the songs focus on–an emotive and yet a disciplined music, austere and uncompromised.”
A Natural End in Itself
In her Beginner’s Guide to Shape-Note Singing, Lisa Grayson points out that the singing is an end itself and that should there be an audience, they are welcome to listen or join in but never applaud any more than they would applaud during a traditional church service, and that the gloomy nature of many of the hymns reflects old church and camp meeting beliefs before some churches turned to “all sweetness and froth.”
While there are never any soloists in Sacred Harp singing, the music emphasizes the human voice which is considered the greatest of all instruments in a natural setting. Many of the hymns contain references to fields, rivers, sky and mountains all of which are considered both natural and sacred.
There are wonderful indexes of Sacred Harp songs available at fasola.org and texasfasola.org which allow you to find tunes by title, first line, composer and meter. To illustrate the so-called gloomy nature, here is “The Weary Souls” written in 1804 as it appears in the Cooper tunebook:
Ye weary, heavy-laden souls,
Who are opprest and sore,
Ye trav’lers thro’ the wilderness
To Canaan’s peaceful shore.
Thro’ chilling winds and beating rains,
And waters deep and cold,
And enemies surrounding us
Take courage and be bold.
Farewell, my brethren in the Lord,
Who are for Canaan bound,
And should we never meet again
’Till Gabriel’s trump shall sound.
I hope that I shall meet you there
On that delightful shore,
In mansions of eternal bliss,
Where parting is no more.
Time and Space
In her thesis “Journey Into the Square: A Geographical Perspective of Sacred Harp,” Michele Abee writes that “Sacred Harp is a community identified around a common religious practice of a specific type of music. It is a practice that has continually adapted to its space through time and found a unique cultural identity in the American South. The opportunity geography provides Sacred Harp is its ability to define its religious practice according to its time and space. The music itself provides a unique perspective to religious geography as the physical environment represented in the lyrics of the hymns demonstrates that the nature surrounding man is divinely created.”
That’s an apt summary of an approach to worship through music that focuses intentionally on, as Sacred Harp singers see it, “the old road,” while modern churches and modern music have gone far afield through experimentation and creativity onto new roads. Both roads have their attractions. When listened to with an open mind, a Sacred Harp sing can be a powerful experience no matter how modern the listener believes himself or herself to be.
Malcolm R. Campbell’s new novel, “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” features a bit of the culture of of the Sacred Harp, necessitating many enjoyable hours of research into a form of religious singing that is quite different from the Presbyterian tradition the author grew up in.