Shout and Sing the Good Old Way: A Sacred Harp Story

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Shout and Sing the Good Old Way: A Sacred Harp Story

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 second.

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 word: sing.

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)

Pine Grove Church
Lookout Mountain, Ala.
Aug. 23, 2008

Singers woke up early this morning to cook rich Southern food—fried chicken, fried okra, squash casserole, potato salad and cream pie—for a midday potluck called “Dinner on the Grounds.” Local women spread dishes on a 47-foot-long table, and two giant buckets hold Bud Oliver’s famous lemonade, made from hundreds of fresh-squeezed lemons, stream water and an obscene amount of sugar.

The session breaks at noon, someone prays, and the plate piling commences. This colorful lunch will serve as fuel for the rest of the day.

Old friends line up to visit with front-row tenor singer Rodney Ivey, who owns a bulldozer-and-backhoe business an hour away in the town of Henagar. “We talk about what we’ve done that week, and the ball game, and maybe a little politics here and there,” says Ivey, 52. “If I go two weeks without singing, I get to wanting to see my friends so bad.”

The singing peaks after lunch. Scot Oliver picks a song called “Blooming Youth,” which is as lively as its title suggests, and singers wink or nudge each other during especially thrilling moments. Organizers pass around greeting cards for friends who couldn’t attend due to illness. But this doesn’t dampen the light spirit. A local invites everyone who’s traveled to the event into the hollow square to lead a song together, and for one singer’s birthday, everyone in the church explodes into a Sacred Harp-style rendition of the birthday song.

Singing schools began as early as 1700, as a way for settlers to practice congregational singing, and traveling teachers held classes for weeks at a time during slow agricultural seasons. These were the social events of the year. Little House on the Prairie fans might remember that Almanzo Wilder proposed to Laura Ingalls at singing school. “Singing schools were regarded as a real attraction for young people because they could meet people of the opposite sex,” says Warren Steel, 60, a singer and Ole Miss music professor.

As American communities became less dependent on agriculture, and as regular schooling became annual, the demand for singing schools lessened—sometimes class would last only a week, as opposed to a month or two. Today, no singing schools exist in true form. Hugh McGraw, a Sacred Harp songwriter and leading figure within the tradition, held a classic school in Holly Springs, Ga., on the first Saturday of every month for more than 50 years. But, having turned 77 this May, he’s stopped teaching regularly.

The sentiment hasn’t been completely lost, though. Camp Fasola is essentially an annual, weeklong Sacred Harp school held near Anniston, Ala. People travel there from all over the country to meet other singers and learn about the music’s rudiments and history from practicing singers and songwriters.

At first glance, Sacred Harp singers look like a bunch of Golden Girls extras. For every child in attendance there are at least a dozen seniors, leading to natural concerns about the tradition’s sustainability. “Most people who listen will say, ‘That’s nice. Enjoyed that,’ and then never come back,” says 61-year-old bass singer Henry Johnson. “The people who are really taken with the music are one in 10, one in 20. I don’t fear that it’s going away, I just think it’s shifting around a bit.”

Yes, my native land, I love thee /
All thy scenes I love them well /
—"Can I Leave You?" (by by J.P. Reese, 1859, And Samuel F. Smith, 1832)

Shoal Creek Church
Talladega National Forest, Ala.
Sept. 1, 2008

It’s the day after the Young People’s Sacred Harp Singing Convention near Bremen, Ga., an event that helps balance the age ratio. There’s hardly enough room for all the singers in this rustic wooden church that lacks plumbing and electricity. The windows are glassless holes in the walls.

Rodney Ivey helps singer and songwriter Lonnie Rogers into the hollow square and pulls up a chair—once you pass 90, it’s hard to stand up. Rogers calls out page 225 and says he’s getting old, so this might be his last singing at the creek.

A wet-eyed crowd sings “Reynolds,” and the break before the next song feels longer than usual.

At the end of the day, chairman Jeff Sheppard opens the floor for announcements. An old tenor urges everyone to attend an evening singing to take place later in the year. “I know some of you don’t like to get out at night ’cause your eyes are going and it’s hard to drive,” the gentleman says, “so my advice to you is: Get a young friend.” Sheppard laughs and says, “I’ve tried to get a young friend, but my wife won’t let me!”

The Young People’s convention also helps balance the proportion of Northerners and Southerners in the congregation. Although the American singing-school movement originated in the Northeast, Southerners nurtured Sacred Harp music while the tradition disappeared up North, where pianos and organs were becoming the norm in churches. Outside of the South, people began to consider Sacred Harp crude, and it was eventually forgotten.

“It wasn’t preserved among institutions—it was these rednecks down South that held onto it,” says Atlanta-based filmmaker and Sacred Harp historian Matt Hinton, a relative baby at age 34. “Either they didn’t care about European standards in music, or they were unaware of them.” Sacred Harp music has always disregarded the concept of popularity, but in a way, Southern singers couldn’t help but be subversive—churches in the rural South didn’t necessarily have access to fancy instruments or European education. They practiced what they knew, perhaps inadvertently preserving America’s first musical heritage.

Today, Northerners are rediscovering what’s become a distinctly Southern tradition. While most Southern Sacred Harp singers are pleased that their community is growing, modifications to the system are unwelcome. “The tendency in New England has been to sing a bit faster than we do down here,” says Raymond Hamrick, a 93-year-old singer, composer and Macon, Ga., native. “As a composer, that bothers me a bit because they lose so much when they sing it fast—they lose a lot of the chord structures and words.”

Even though the tradition’s purity seems in jeopardy, ?Sacred Harp music has received more attention in the last few years than it did over the last half-century. It had a moment in the spotlight in 2003, when the music appeared in Civil War movie Cold Mountain. And now Hinton is releasing ?an album of modern pop artists interpreting Sacred Harp material. (See sidebar).

It all raises the question of whether Sacred Harp music will morph into something totally unrecognizable to people who practice the tradition today. “Groups of young people [in the North] sing, and people from the South notice the way they’re dressed, and they have piercings and tattoos that seem so out of place to us,” Steel says. “And there’s maybe an attitude of performance.”

While the picture Steel paints certainly isn’t true for many Northern singers, the tradition can’t abide any attitude of performance—a lack thereof is what’s kept this music alive. There are no risers, you never hear singers complimenting each other’s voices, and clapping is out of place, unless it’s an encouraging gesture after a child or first-timer leads a song. Other forms of sacred American music—gospel, praise and worship—can involve tryouts and stages and people being paid to sing. But Sacred Harp is different, and its difference creates a paradox: The day the hollow square becomes a stage, Sacred Harp as we know it will die. But the music’s life may depend on that new chorus of voices, many of which hail from the North.

On one hand, it’s easy for Southerners perceive these young Yankees as interlopers, traipsing into Dixie with their blue jeans and bluer political leanings. Hinton doesn’t see it that way. “It’s probably the blue-state people who are cognizant of that kind of thing,” he says. “They think, ‘Boy, we’re going down among people we hate—conservative, fundamentalist, redneck, Wal-Mart people who drive American-made cars and don’t watch PBS.’” But they do it anyway, because they’re seeking a musical tradition that has hardly changed in 300 years, and these conservative people are protectors of the old ways.

Steven Levine, a 51-year-old Jewish Bostonian who’s traveled south to singings for over 10 years, says he’s never experienced sociopolitical tension. “I came from a position of trying to be a good guest, and I was made to feel welcome,” he says. “I’m probably very different—politically and otherwise—from my friends in the South, but you check that at the door.”

who—in addition to making his own music—also sings with a Massachusetts  Sacred Harp group comprised largely of young folks, thinks that the Southern singing dynamic will eventually make its way north. “It’s a different relationship to the music,” he says. “But give us another 150 years and we might be there.”

Come, saints and sinners, hear me tell /
The wonders of Emmanuel /
Who saved me from a burning hell /
And brought my soul with Christ to dwell
—"Heavenly Union" (by Neely Bruce, 1989)

Liberty Baptist Church
Henagar, Ala. 
July 5, 2008

Sand Mountain is a haunted house of a place. In his book Salvation on Sand Mountain, Dennis Covington describes a snake-handling church where members speak in tongues, drink strychnine and curse demons. The area is nicknamed “Meth Mountain” for obvious (and frightening) reasons.

It’s also home to 74-year-old farmer Coy Ivey and his family, upstanding citizens and Sacred Harp legends. Every year, singers from across the country travel to Liberty Baptist Church for what’s widely considered the best singing in the world. Before the opening prayer, Coy’s cousin Loyd stands up and says, “If it’s your first time, don’t act like a stranger. Act like it’s home.”

Later, Loyd and Rodney lead a song called “We’ll Soon Be There.” When they reach the kicker, “Oh, who will come and go with me / We’ll shout and sing Hosanna,” the crowd’s joy is tangible.

First-time Sacred Harp singers often think the experience will be like church without all the preaching and kneeling, expecting someone to stop them on the way out the door to ask if they love Jesus, and if the answer is “no,” dunk them in the Tallapoosa River to seal the deal. But while Sacred Harp music is hymn-based, and a religious experience for most singers, it doesn’t call for evangelism.

Still, to many traditionalists, singing Sacred Harp music without spiritual conviction is superficial. “Anyone who sings Sacred Harp is to some extent religious, whether they admit it or not,” Johnson says. “It’s hard to imagine someone singing those words and enjoying it if they didn’t have some sort of religious component to them.” While some feel this way (Sacred Harp is still heavily associated with the Primitive Baptist church in the South), as shape-note finds its way back into the American musical lexicon, people are becoming involved for reasons outside of spiritual interest. “Our culture has become that way—we don’t just have one religion anymore,” says Steel. “A lot of non-religious people certainly get something out of the music and the poetry.”

At Camp Fasola, participants attend a Christian devotional each morning. “This probably makes a few people uncomfortable because they’re not accustomed to it, but for the much larger majority, it’s something they appreciate and like,” says camp director (and Rodney’s brother) David Ivey, 53. “We don’t apologize for it, but we’re also not beating anybody over the head with Bibles.”

McGraw doesn’t mince words: “I think anybody who sings Sacred Harp should be a Christian.” But he welcomes people he considers non-believers to singings. “I’m no judge of who is a Christian and who is not,” he says.     

Many modern forms of sacred music involve fluffy lyrics about God’s unfailing love, and blessings pouring down like rainstorms, and how fun it’ll be to dance in the golden streets of Heaven without having to worry about pollution and getting hit by cars and all. That’s not the case with Sacred Harp—sure, they sing about God’s love and protection, but they also sing about the times when they need it most.

The morbid hymn “Jackson,” Hinton says, poses difficult questions: Am I even born again? I’m a bad person—how do I deal with this? Is there anyone like me?

The lyrics weren’t necessarily written for Sacred Harp tunes. Since many of the songs were originally poems or hymns by English or American wordsmiths going back to the 1700s, they have an old-fashioned language and concept of religion. “Outside of Sacred Harp, people don’t really use hymn books that old, so it’s a natural conservatism that keeps those ways of speaking,” Steel says. “They don’t take out frank, negative things like death.”

“Every tune I write,” says Hamrick, who has six songs in the revised edition of the Sacred Harp songbook, “has a feeling about it—it can be joyful, it can be sad, it can be religious. I look for texts that exemplify the feeling I get from the music.” Some songs are both joyful and solemn, as in Primitive Hymns’ “Christian’s Farewell,” composed by Hamrick: “Brethren, farewell, I do you tell / I’m sorry to leave, I love you so well / Now I must go, where I don’t know / Wherever Christ leads me the trumpet to blow / Here I have worked, labored awhile, / But labor is sweet if Jesus doth smile / When I am done, I will go home / Where Jesus is smiling and bids me to come.”

At the very least, it’s a poem set to a tune, turning into something holy when a hundred people belt it out in one big voice. That voice isn’t always pretty, and it sounds different in Brooklyn than it does on Sand Mountain, but it’s an instrument—a mighty sacred harp—and it’s loud.

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