In 1990, college student and amateur musician Matt Hinton came across a flier for a Sacred Harp singing outside of Atlanta. He followed it to a small church, assuming he’d stumbled on a run-of-the-mill gospel-folk concert. Instead he discovered a little-known musical tradition that would later become the heart of he and his wife Erica’s labor-of-love film, Awake, My Soul, a documentary 10 years in the making.
Sacred Harp singing—which experienced a brief moment in the pop-culture sun after its appearance in 2003 Civil War movie Cold Mountain—is a form of a cappella music that began as a part of the American South’s Protestant Christian tradition. Sacred Harp singers meet in churches and sit divided into four, pitch-based sections (treble, alto, tenor and bass), creating a “hollow square” center where the leader stands. It’s often called shape-note singing because the notes are written on the music staff as shapes that represent a particular syllable (think do re mi).
Hinton says it’s nearly impossible to capture on tape the strength and uniqueness of sound at a Sacred Harp singing. Participants are expected to sing loudly and passionately. “It shakes you to your core,” he says. “In most other contexts if you sing as loud as you possibly can, people look at you funny. But there, no one cares.”
Several years after Hinton picked up that fateful flier, his wife Erica made a 10-minute documentary on Sacred Harp singing for a class at Georgia State University. The pair quickly realized that such a short film didn’t do the subject justice, so they began working on the full-length Awake, My Soul, which explores the deep roots of Sacred Harp singing and also takes the pulse of the tradition as it exists today. Matt and Erica still can’t believe they were the first filmmakers to seriously mine this rich territory. “It’s arguably the earliest distinctively American music,” says Matt. “For no one to have made a movie about it is absurd.”
Sacred Harp singing has been left out of more than just films—it’s rarely found in college curricula or music-history books. According to Matt, this lack of exposure is due to the fact that Sacred Harp music has always been subversive. “It’s the closest we can get to an a cappella version of rock ’n’ roll,” he says. “If you’ve heard ‘Iron Man’ by Black Sabbath, there are those two-note [power] chords [instead of the more traditionally accepted three-note chords] that music people consider problematic.”
The Hintons don’t claim to be objective documentary filmmakers. Awake, My Soul grew out of an intense connection to Sacred Harp singing and an urge to share it. “While we were making the film, we wanted to sing,” says Erica. “Sometimes it was awful to walk in with a camera.” But their partiality resulted in more than just an educational film—it’s a motion to gain Sacred Harp singing the more prominent spot it deserves in the American musical lexicon.