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

Music Features Sacred Harp

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 Band in 2006. “There’s no room to put 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)

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