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

Music Features Sacred Harp
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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.