For some it’s a family tradition. Others discovered it on their own. Whatever path brought them there folks of all ages and backgrounds are welcome at sacred harp singings such as those at Emory Presbyterian Church.
Sacred harp or shape-note singing is a uniquely American form of musical expression that was born in little New England churches and spread across the country. The South, however, is where it has taken root and remains active.
There is no harp in sacred harp singing. In fact, that are no musical instruments at all—the hymns and anthems are sung a cappella. The term sacred harp is a metaphorical reference to the first musical instrument—the human voice.
The music sheets look different from those churchgoers may be used to. The heads of the notes instead of the familiar oval shape take other shapes, depending on where on the scale they fall. For example, fa is a triangle, sol an oval, la a rectangle and mi a diamond. Also, instead of the familiar treble and bass clefs, there are four staffs, one for each voice—alto, treble, bass and tenor.
“Each part is distinctive and beautiful. With a lot of songs it would be hard to say which part is the melody,” said Malinda Snow, who arrived early at the November singing at Emory Presbyterian to put out the music and be sure the room was set up properly. Chairs are arranged in a square, facing inward with the four sections making up the sides of the square. The bass section is all men and the alto section is women. The tenor and treble sections are often mixed with men and women singing an octave apart.
Many of the musical selections are traditional hymns from the 18th and 19th centuries, such as those written by Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, but, Snow explained, music is still being written for sacred harp singing. As one Internet article on sacred harp music notes, “Our tradition is a living, breathing, ongoing practice passed directly to us by generations of singers.”
Snow said she first heard sacred harp music on the radio and was immediately taken with it. “It sounded weird,” she recalled. “I like weird.” Indeed, those hearing sacred harp music for the first time might think it odd to hear people singing musical syllables—do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti—instead of words. All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name might be sol-sol-sol-la-sol-la-sol-la. Typically the song is sung first in syllables, then the leader shouts, “words!” and the song is sung a second time using the words.
Any singer can be the leader for a song. He or she simply stands in the center of the square and announces which song they will sing and which verses. Leaders—and some singers—keep time with a vigorous up and down wave of the arm. The leader might have a little story about the song—“They used to do this one in east Texas” or “This song was one or the ones considered for our national anthem.” Following another sacred harp tradition, Leslie Hunter dedicated the song Hallelujah to the memory of an Emory professor who had died that week.
George Washington Burnette III, one of the regulars at the Emory Presbyterian singings, explained that he learned sacred harp singing from his great uncle, the blind son of a slave, who learned it in a south Alabama church. “When my great-grandfather was a slave, one of his jobs was to drive the family to church,” Burdette explained. “The slaves sat in the back of the church during the service and that’s where he first heard this type of singing.” He passed it along to his 11 children, who passed it to next the generation.
Burnette said his family continued the tradition at a Primitive Baptist church in Covington County, Ala. A lodge hall now sits on the land where the church had been, but the family still meets there once a year for a fish fry and shape-note singing.
As the inward square seating arrangement suggests, this is not a performance for an audience. There are sometimes observers not confident of their ability to participate who sit quietly in the back and listen.
While many are regulars, people come and go within the group. At the November meeting Vicki Fey, who along with husband is a church musician on sabbatical from their church in Bristol, Tenn., joined the group for the evening.
“There are groups all over the South and most of us know each other. We’re a community of people who care about one another,” said Sandra Wilkinson, who also is involved with a sacred harp group at her Glenwood Road church. She said the music has been a tradition in her family for generations. “There have been sacred harp groups in the Atlanta area for more than 150 years. Many people don’t know about us because this is not performance singing; this is participation singing. We sing to the glory of God and for each other.”
Those who would like to experience sacred harp singing have the opportunity Dec. 19 at a potluck dinner and singing open to the public. The event is at East Lake Commons, 900 Dancing Fox Road, Decatur. The dinner starts at 6:15 with singing at 7:30 p.m. For directions and information, visit http://eastlakecommons.org/MapsDirections/default.htm.