Almost 20 years ago, Matt Hinton stumbled upon a flier for a Sacred Harp singing outside of Atlanta. He followed it to a church and was immediately hooked. Hinton and his wife Erica eventually made a feature-length documentary called Awake, My Soul: The Story of Sacred Harp, which explains the tradition’s history and examines its current state. The film features interviews with legendary singers, footage of singings and, now, an accompanying soundtrack, packaged alongside a new compilation. Help Me To Sing features modern interpretations of Sacred Harp songs by artists like Tim Eriksen, John Paul Jones, The Innocence Mission, Elvis Perkins and Jim Lauderdale.
Some traditionalists will cry double standard, since one of Sacred
Harp’s most charming qualities is that it’s never been a
commodity—popular culture doesn’t shape the music, and there’s no
industry surrounding it. Hugh McGraw is skeptical of Hinton’s venture.
“I don’t like instruments with Sacred Harp,” he says. “I like it just
like it was sung a hundred years ago.”
The Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris felt a similar tension when
recording 18th-century hymn “Africa” for Help Me To Sing. “The main
challenge was to feel OK about doing a much quieter, smaller version of
the song,” she says. “We recorded it a number of times, hoping it
wouldn’t be contrary to the writer’s intentions.”
Hinton insists that McGraw’s got nothing to worry about, clarifying
that the interpretations on Help Me To Sing aren’t posing as Sacred
Harp songs. “These are pop adaptations of Sacred Harp songs; it’s
performance music,” he says. He considers the compilation a vehicle to
get people to hear actual Sacred Harp music, which will in turn lure
them to the singings.
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