Let us sing – the joy of Sacred Harp

Singing at Stannington – photo by Ewan Paterson

I thought it was about time I mentioned another big part of my musical life – Sacred Harp singing. The name comes from the main hymn book used, which has been in print since 1844, and originally referred to the human voice. Yes, I did say hymn book, and it’s true that this unaccompanied four-part harmony singing is rooted in singing (mostly) 19th century sacred songs, but you definitely don’t have to be religious to get involved these days. The sound of Sacred Harp singing is nothing like English hymn singing…it’s strong, raw and haunting. The use of harmonies and the lack of instrumental accompaniment produces a rousing sound, the like of which you may never have heard before.

My first taste of Sacred Harp singing came when I watched the film Cold Mountain on DVD back in 2005. I was really struck by all the music in that film, but especially by the singing in the church scene. On the DVD extras I discovered a whole section with the film’s musical director Tim Eriksen who spoke about how he drafted in genuine Sacred Harp singers to voice this scene. I was really taken by the singing, and thought “this is for me”. As luck would have it, a couple of weeks later I bought a programme for the local folk festival at Holmfirth. There as part of the programme was a Sacred Harp singing workshop! I went along to the rather atmospheric, windswept chapel at Choppards, sat in on the singing school by Cath Tyler, and was hooked.   

The tradition is rooted in New England, from where it spread to the Southern States back in the 1800s, although many of the songs undoubtedly originate in the British Isles. In the early 1800s, singing schools became immensely popular in the eastern US. Although these petered out by the time of the Civil War, Sacred Harp was kept alive by singing communities in the South, especially in Alabama and Georgia. A revival began several decades ago and there’s now a growing singing community across much of the USA and Canada. The singing scene in the UK and continental Europe continues to grow, and we regularly see large gatherings at our all day singings and two-day conventions.   

Sacred Harp is part of a wider tradition of shape note singing – i.e. the notes have differently shaped heads, not just round. The idea of this originally was to help people who couldn’t read music, or perhaps couldn’t read at all, to visualise where the note was on the scale. Sacred Harp singing uses the Fasola system of notes. We stick to the tradition of singing each song through “on the shapes”, followed by the words. This can be a bit tricky at first but you do get used to it – it’s also a great way to check out the pitch, as another unusual thing about Sacred Harp is that we sing in “keys of convenience”. For instance, a song might be written on the page in the key of E Minor, but might never be sung in this exact key – or might be sung slightly differently on different occasions! We have allocated “pitchers” who are absolutely crucial to the singing. At the beginning of each song, the pitcher will key the song so that it works for all four parts without being too high or low. It’s a real skill, hard to learn and hard to teach – there are no aids, like a pitch pipe or an instrument to rely on. Sometimes we have to start a song again if we get it wrong!

The four parts (tenor, treble, alto and bass) sit in what we call a hollow square facing inwards, with the leader standing in the middle, facing the tenors. Sacred Harp singing is a very democratic tradition. Each leader gets up, calls a song by its number, leads the song,  next leader gets up, and so on throughout a whole day. The leader decides on the tempo of their chosen song, which verses they want to sing, whether they want to sing marked repeats, and so on. The leader also guides the class by beating time – another hallmark of Sacred Harp singing. Rhythm and accent is really important in Sacred Harp and is a key characteristic of the music. As you can imagine, with no instrumental accompaniment, beating time is a great way to keep the harmony parts singing together precisely. Singers are encouraged to observe the leader closely and to beat time too (especially the front row tenors). It can take a while to get the hang of it though, especially while you’re learning your part and how to read shape notes!

I’ve tried to give a brief explanation of the music and its history, but of course there’s much more to it than can be covered in one blog entry. You can find out more here. Finally, it’s important to repeat that Sacred Harp is community singing and the emphasis is very much on participation rather than performance. We sing for ourselves and each other, and the beauty and power of that sound can be overwhelming. Why not try out Sacred Harp singing for yourself? Check out the calendar of regular UK singing events here – everyone is welcome to come and join in, whether you want to come for the whole day or pop in for an hour. Singing out loud in the hollow square is a great feeling, and if you love to sing, you should definitely give it a go!