Tune, tune your harps, ye saints on high
/All is well, all is well!
—"All is Well" (J.T. White 1844, and Revival Melodies 1842)
Salem United Methodist Church
Cherokee County, Ala.
June 21, 2008
These people shake walls. No microphones, no amplifiers, but you can hear them singing from half a mile away. Gathered in a quaint white church in Cedar Bluff, Ala., a history-drenched a capella Sacred Harp community lifts its collective voice.
The singers sit in four pew sections facing each other: tenor,
alto, treble and bass. Lifelong singer and respected leader Judy Caudle
chooses the song “Heavenly Rest” and calls out a songbook page number.
She beats time, chopping the air from the cherished space at the center
of the four sections, the hollow square, as a roomful of people sings,
“How happy are the souls above / From sin and sorrow free / With Jesus
they are now at rest / And all his glory see.”
“Sometimes the sound is sweet, gentle, uplifting,” says Caudle, 56.
“And sometimes it’s forceful, full-volume, almost pushing upward.”
Sacred Harp—named after an 1844 songbook published by B.F. White
and E.J. King—is a form of shape-note singing. In this method, there
are four syllables (fa, sol, la and mi), each corresponding with a
different shape: triangle, oval, square and diamond, respectively. At
the beginning of a song (called the “lesson,” a leftover singing-school
term), participants run through the tune once, pronouncing only the
syllables. It sounds like gibberish, but it’s helpful to practice a
melody without having to worry about the words. When it’s time to add
the lyrics, each section has its own part.
The singing is
startlingly unadorned, a chorus of wild animals. “The right way is to
sing those notes, and sing them loud,” says music historian Lance
Ledbetter, whose Dust-to-Digital label released a Sacred Harp
compilation called I Belong To This Bandput your Mariah Carey stamp on it.” While singers do hit the notes
according to their parts, and while some have lovely voices, there’s no
emphasis on vocal beauty. The strange sound couldn’t survive out of
context—most of these voices would get booed off of American Idol in a
Shape-note singing was initially used in Colonial New England
singing schools as a way to teach students to sight read, but it’s
since become a rural-Southern tradition. Folks drive for hours to
all-day singings (pronounced singin’ in these parts) at rustic
gravel-road churches, especially in Alabama. If you’re searching for
one, Google Maps will only get you so far—after a while, the streets
have no names, and travelers rely on hand-painted signs to lead them to
a church. These signs often bear a directional arrow and a solitary
Come, and the Lord shall feed our souls /
With more substatial meat /
With such as saints in glory love /
With such as angels eat
—"Vermont" (by William Billings, 1778, and Isaac Warrs, 1709)