“Nothing is weirder than Sacred Harp. Its favored subject matter–the pilgrim, the grave, Christ’s blood–is stark; its style–severe fourths and otherworldly open fifths–has been obsolete for more than a century. Its notation, in which triangles, circles and squares indicate pitch, looks like cuneiform. Yet it exudes power and integrity. Five people sound like a choir; a dozen like a hundred.” — From “Give Me That Old-Time Singing”, Time Magazine
For newcomers … a first encounter with this “powerful and elemental” sound can inspire many different reactions. “Some will say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’ while others will say, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful,’ ” he said. “And then there is a certain, small percentage of people who say, ‘I must do this.’ ” (Buell Cobb, New York Times)
I’m there in droves. (Simon Jones, Church Times “Music Takes a Sacred Shape”, 7 December 2012)
What, exactly, is Sacred Harp singing?
Sacred Harp singing is an old a cappella community singing tradition from the American South. Older than gospel, certainly, with tunes so old that their origins are sometimes obscure. The music is sung in four parts, with octave doubling on two parts, and the composition style is often polyphonic. This singing tradition preserved forms, devices and harmonic tastes that were swept away in Europe as classical choral and sacred music evolved. In that way, I suppose it is a paradox and an anachronism – “early music” from the New World.
Sacred Harp has a fascinating history – like America itself, this music has historical roots on this side of the Atlantic, but it has undergone a sea-change. The many generations of development in the New World have transformed it into something unique and indisputably American. It is a type of folk music, ’tis true, but is exclusively sacred music and never sung with instruments.
When I first heard it (the song was “Child of Grace“), I thought it sounded like hillbillies singing Renaissance music. I was deeply moved in that moment, and I have loved it fiercely ever since.
Not everyone’s cup of tea, to be sure, but it’s very beautiful to those who sing it regularly.
In the American South, a Sacred Harp singing is akin to a church service, and even for those who lack any kind of connection to the original Southern US tradition and the Protestant Christianity in which it is rooted, it is far more than just music.
There is no getting away from it: This music is spiritual and – perhaps more than anything else – it is about communicating and connecting with others by singing together. The experience can be overwhelming.
Although this is sacred music, we welcome all and practice (and expect) tolerance and respect for all singers, irrespective of belief or lack thereof, and we never ask anyone about their religion or politics.
Indeed: This is one of the more diverse and welcoming singing groups you will ever come across.
Sacred Harp singing definitely has its own style and “performance practice”, although we would never call it that. It is not performance music.
And it’s a minor miracle that it has survived intact, in a seamless line over the generations from 1844 down to the present day, because it cannot be commercialised. Sacred Harp singing is a priceless combination of tradition, spirituality, music and community, but the cost of admission is usually just a songbook and sometimes a donation towards hall hire.
Where can I find out more?
Come to a singing, such as the Third Monday beginner’s workshop in Bloomsbury. Beginners are more than welcome at any Sacred Harp singing. We will teach you everything you need to know. No charge, just a suggested donation to cover the hire of the hall. A few loaner books will always be available, and you can also buy your own.
Where can I learn to do this?
Click here for times and locations.