Make a joyful noise:
The revival of sacred harp singing
The film Awake My Soul begins on a narrow, rutted country road, the camera’s viewpoint winding its way through stands of trees as the sound of singing becomes louder and louder. Finally, a small wooden building emerges from around a bend. It is Shoals Creek Church, located deep in the Talledega National Forest in rural Georgia. And yet, despite its inaccessibility, the clearing is full of cars. The church is full of people, all singing at the top of their lungs, executing complicated melodies and countermelodies, unaccompanied by any sort of instrument.
In a way, this opening encapsulates the central paradox of sacred harp singing, an art form that is nearly as old as America. Sacred harp singers form a thriving community in the most isolated of places. They practice a wholly participatory art, one that is seldom recorded and never performed for audiences. They sing out of books of songs that may be hundreds of years old, yet which continually incorporate new music composed in the sacred harp style.
What exactly is sacred harp singing? In its simplest terms, it is a four-part, unaccompanied vocal art form that originated in Colonial America. Its hymns are written out in a four-figured notation, using a different shape for each of its notes, fa, so, la and mi. (It is sometimes called shape note singing because of the notation.)
Sacred harp singing is a participatory art, rather than a performance. Singers gather for all day sings, starting at nine or ten in the morning, breaking for lunch and returning to sing late into the afternoon. In a one day’s gathering, singers may work through 90 to 100 songs, the first time through singing only the notes (“fa”, “so” etc.), the second time using the words. Four groups of singers – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – are arranged facing inward, towards the “hollow square”, the best place to experience sacred harp singing. Singers take turns as leader, beating out the time in this hollow square,
Still unlike many traditional art forms, sacred harp singing has never really been commercialized and so remains remarkably uncorrupted by the modern world. Matt Hinton, who with his wife created Awake My Soul speculates that sacred harp music may have survived intact at least partly because of its communal, participatory nature. “It’s not listener’s music. It’s singers’ music,” says Hinton.
“I don’t just mean that there’s a priority placed on participating, which there is, but what I mean is just the very way that songs are written, it’s just not that suitable for listening to,” he adds. “Though some people enjoy listening to it and I certainly do.”
Hinton goes on to explain that when the uninitiated first hear sacred harp music, typically from the back of a church, what they perceive is a mishmash of four distinctly different parts. “If they had to hum a tune, the melody would probably be the first couple of notes of the tenor line and then a couple of notes of the treble line and a couple of notes of the alto line and put them all together,” Hinton says. And that’s assuming that new listeners can even pick a central melodic line out of a complex tapestry of counterpoints. “Sometimes there really is no main melody/ That is, there’s not a melody that other parts are supporting, but rather each part is generally written as something interesting and important all by itself,” Hinton goes on. That’s why bass singers, in particular, and tenors for that matter, really love singing it. Ordinarily they get stuck with these really boring parts in choruses. Which purely serve to be a foundation upon which the sopranos get to sing the melody.”
That complexity, in itself, has helped protect the art form. “There’s not anybody who could walk into a Sacred Harp singing, not really knowing anything about it, and take it over,” says Hinton. “Even if you’re a professional musician and know how to read music and so on, you still have to learn how to do it. At which point you begin to learn some of its priorities and to understand it.”
“On the one hand, it’s very open and embracing. Everybody’s welcome to come and welcome, indeed, to come up and lead a song,” he says. “But on the other hand, if you come in, if you walk into the room, a lot of people’s backs are turned to you. We’re all facing the center and it’s sort of a closed off thing. That sort of gives off a feeling of being…being a community on one hand, but also having its back turned on the outside world.”
Help me to sing
Sacred harp singing is a tradition that has been handed down, generation after generation in the south. Many of today’s singers come from families that have sung these songs for as long as anyone can remember. Elderly singers talk of playing outside while their parents sang, or hearing these songs from their own grandparents. Yet it is a tradition that is always in danger of dying out if new singers are not brought in. So, while deeply rooted in personal and community history, while physically and metaphorically inward-looking, the sacred harp art form is also remarkably inclusive.
“At many of these sings, there’s a memorial afterwards where we commemorate singers who we’ve sung with and who have died in the previous year,” says Hinton. “Every so often, someone will get up and say, well, I’d like to sing this for Uncle so and so, who I used to hear in the 1940s and 1950s sing. So some of the elderly people who sing this kind of music, they’re not going to be with us forever. And so they have to be replaced by somebody. So there’s always a real strong motivation to get more people there.”
The documentary, Awake My Soul, traces the history of sacred harp singing from its beginnings in New England during the Great Awakening through its heyday in the 19th century through its current revival. Yet alongside this history, the film captures the art form in its current, living state, with extensive footage of sacred harp singing, interviews with leading singers and songwriters.
Matt Hinton, who made the documentary with his wife Erica, says that he stumbled across sacred harp singing as a teenager. He was at a concert featuring North Carolina ballad singer Betty Smith when someone handed him a flyer for an upcoming sacred harp singing. “I went out to the singing and it was in this old brick church, maybe 35 or 40 minutes outside of Atlanta, and couldn’t really believe what it was I was hearing. It was a relatively small group of people there -- maybe 40 or so people -- but it sounded like there were hundreds. You could hear them before you got to the door of the place,” he remembers. At the time I thought that these were the last people in the world who were doing this. I thought it was a lost musical tribe.”
From that point on, Hinton went to two or three sings a year, always sitting in the back and reluctant to participate. Erica, who would later become his wife, came with him on one of these expeditions; she later learned that her grandmother had been a sacred harp singer. Both were students at Georgia State University when they met. Erica took a documentary film class and decided to make her assigned 10-minute film on sacred harp singing.
“So we went to a couple of singings one weekend and she edited that and made a ten-minute film, which she called ‘Awake My Soul,’” he said. “But ten minutes is just not enough, obviously, to cover the entire history of the Sacred Harp singing. We kept bringing the camera and sort of never considered that project to be finished.”
Contemporary interpretations That ten-minute film has since evolved into a full-length documentary, plus a two CD set, with one CD (Awake My Soul) comprised of traditional sacred harp singing, the other (Help Me to Sing) of covers of sacred harp hymns interpreted by contemporary artists.
One of the biggest names on this second disc is John Paul Jones, the former Led Zeppelin bass player who has long had a fascination for traditional American music. Hinton, a self-described Zeppelin fanatic, says that he ran into Jones at Merle Fest in North Carolina (where Awake My Soul was screening) and asked for an autograph. “Any kind of notion of coolness that you have?” he says. “Completely goes out the window when you’re with John Paul Jones.”
As it happened, the only paper he had to offer was a copy of the sacred harp songbook. The two had a brief conversation and Hinton gave Jones a copy of his album, at that time, comprised only of authentic, choral versions of sacred harp songs. (The covers came later.) The next day, Hinton ran into Jones again and the two had a long conversation about sacred harp singing. “I was in the surreal position of actually being able to tell John Paul Jones anything about music, you know what I mean?” recalls Hinton. “Which was strange because I had learned how to play guitar based on listening to his recordings.”
Jones had recently produced an album by the string band Uncle Earl, and Hinton had already been in contact with the band’s fiddler, Raina Gellert , about contributing a sacred harp recording. “So we were emailing back and forth, and I said, by the way, Raina Gellert and John Paul Jones sure has a nice ring to it,” Hinton recalls. The two of them ended up recording “Blooming Youth,” their two voices intertwining in one of the album’s starkest, most haunting cuts.
Other singers came to the project through deep personal connections with sacred harp music. Sam Amidon, who sings “Kedron” on the covers disc, says he was first introduced to sacred harp singing by his mom and dad. “My parents got deeply involved with shape-note singing when, in the midst of the folk revival, they joined Larry Gordon's Word of Mouth Chorus in the '70s, before they were married - they were in their mid-20s,” he says. “They toured with Larry & Bread & Puppet before settling in Brattleboro, Vermont. From the time I was born there were monthly sings in our town and often in our house, so this is some of the first music I heard or participated in.”
Stephen Nichols of the Good Players, who covers “David’s Lamentations” also had an early introduction to the sacred harp tradition. “My father is a Southern Baptist music minister. I remember academic discussions about shape note/Sacred Harp music,” he explains. “The church pianist led a workshop on shape note singing when I was too young to appreciate it.”
Nichols says that, like many people, he didn’t fully appreciate the music until he attended a sing. “The curious methodology of shaped notes is irrelevant when you're surrounded by over 100 people singing with conviction at the top of their lungs in the middle of nowhere,” he says.
Moreover, the artists on the disc maintain that sacred harp singing is not a, historical oddity, but rather a living, breathing influence on their own work. Amidon says that sacred harp harmonies and counterpoints have been a large part of his personal musical DNA – and that they continue to influence his recorded output. ”The style of singing has been hugely influential for me, it was the main kind of singing i did in high school; the open harmonies of the songs are really powerful & always inspiring,” he explains. “I sing a lot of re-worked shape-note pieces on my solo records.”
The power of incorrectness
The covers are very fine, yet you cannot help returning to the disc of originals, recorded in churches, with amateur singers, in a style that is fierce and forceful and utterly transporting. Even well-known melodies like “New Britain” (also known as “Amazing Grace”) take on unfamiliar heft and complexity in these arrangements, as well as a volume that is nearly shocking.
Asked if he has a favorite among the traditional songs, Hinton first demurs, then points to “Eternal Day.” “If somebody asked me to play them one Sacred Harp song which would completely illustrate what Sacred Harp singing is about, that has all the elements that are distinctive about Sacred Harp singing, that’s the song that I would choose,” he says. The song was written in the 1800s by a traveling pastor named J.P. Reese, incorporates all the “incorrectness” of traditional sacred harp music, the two-note chords and parallel fifths. It is a fuguing tune, with the four sections singing the same motif at staggered intervals, for a dazzling sense of motion and pursuit. And it is sung imperfectly, by ordinary people, pushing their voices to their very limits. You can hear a baby crying in the background. Yet for all this wrong-ness, there is no denying the power of the song. “It’s crazy what a heavy song that is,” he adds. “I’d put that up against any Black Sabbath song in the world in terms of sheer heaviness.”
Amidon also sees parallels between sacred harp and rock music. “I have always heard a lot of the intensity of shape note music in Kurt Cobain's singing and his guitar playing too,” he says. “I think that's what the great Tim Eriksen was picking up on in his work with the band Cordelia's Dad in the nineties, when they sang shape note songs - I think they even opened for Nirvana at one point. I also feel like there is an interesting connection between the harmonies and textures of sacred harp singing, and the drone minimalism of the seventies of LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad.”
Hinton says that he and Tim Eriksen have talked at length about the parallels between punk rock and sacred harp. “Who knows what the relationship is?” he says, “but when you think about it, parallel fifths and two-note chords, that’s just power chords on the guitar. They sound really freaky when you’ve got people singing power chords, rather than a guitar.” And counterintuitive as it may seem, it’s possible to draw a direct line of succession between sacred harp singing and rock and roll. Hinton starts with the Louvin Brothers, natives of sacred harp stronghold Henniker, Alabama. The Louvin Brothers inspired the Everly Brothers, particularly influencing their use of harmonies. And the Everly Brothers inspired the Beatles. “It may not be too much of a stretch to say that if there was no Sacred Harp there would be no Beatles,” says Hinton.
Diversity and inclusion
Rock borrows heavily from African-American traditions, too – like blues, jazz and gospel. All of which brings up an interesting question: is sacred harp singing an all-white tradition? Hinton says no.
“Black people certainly sang Sacred Harp plenty much,” he explains. “In fact, we sing with a guy here now in Atlanta whose great grandfather, or maybe even grandfather, was a slave. He wound up a chapel after he was freed specifically designed for singing Sacred Harp. And this guy remembers singing in that and being raised in it when he was a kid.”
But when gospel music appeared in the early 20th century, black churches turned to it even more than white churches, with the result that there are very few black sacred harp communities now in the American south. However, there are some, including the Wiregrass family in Ozark, Alabama. This family descends from a sacred harp compiler named Judge Jackson, who in 1935 produced a book called The Colored Sacred Harp. One of the Wiregrass family, Dewey Williams, took an early leadership role in the national sacred harp organization and members of the family still participate in its conventions. Yet, as the film Awake My Soul makes clear, there are very few black faces at southern sacred harp sings…and very few young people either.
“As the world became more modern, people became less interested in that old time-y stuff. Even in the 1800s there are these newspaper articles that we’ve seen that talk about this old time-y music. There’s almost never been a time when Sacred Harp wasn’t old-fashioned. If it’s old-time-y in the 1800s, what is it now?”
Yet though the authentic southern singing groups chronicled in the documentary may be aging rapidly, Hinton says that younger people have been joining up in droves in the east and Midwest. A thriving community in Northampton, Massachusetts, for instance, draws upwards of 400 people to the Western Mass Sacred Harp Convention, many of them under 35.
That’s maybe because people of all ages and backgrounds are beginning to see sacred harp music as an antidote to the isolation and wall-to-wall consumerism of modern life. ”Sacred Harp singing and communal singing in general reminds us that we're part of a whole,” says Nichols. “It's an intimate exchange of ideas and emotions without judgment or pretense. Anyone is welcome regardless of ability or religious affiliation. In a time of increasing personal insulation and lives lived in front of screens, group singing is an alternative to constant consumption. You participate. You make the music.”