C major scale in shape notes, four-shape system of the Sacred Harp. (From Wikipedia)
Sacred Harp "Rudiments" from 1911 edition of the Original Sacred Harp.
Image courtesy of Emory University Pitts Theology Library.
What gives Sacred Harp singing its haunting, ancient sound?
In Sacred Harp music, the tenor part may carry the melody, but each of the other parts (bass, alto, treble) have important roles. Composers also make use of parallel fifths, in which an interval of a fifth is employed consecutively, and Sacred Harp composers consider two notes, often fifths, sufficient for a chord. Sacred Harp music includes unique performance practices. For example, all songs are sung loudly. Participants sing virtually at the top of their voices, though the falling and rising of the leader's arm can indicate where accents should be placed. Music composed in this style may feature dispersed harmony, in which the parts cross over each other rather than running parallel.
Both the tenor and treble sections include men and women, creating the effect of a six-part, rather than a four-part, harmony. Sacred Harp music frequently includes fuging tunes, which incorporate a technique similar to singing in rounds. The different parts enter at different intervals as they repeat a line.
History of Sacred Harp
Title page of the fourth edition of The Sacred Harp, published in 1870.
Image courtesy of Emory University Pitts Theology Library.
The name of this oblong songbook has come to designate the form of a cappella choral music it preserves. Sacred Harp music has its beginnings in New England music reforms. Puritans neglected sacred music, and by the late seventeenth century, many church-goers were weary of antiquated psalmody and a limited number of tunes. Singing schools emerged to teach lay-persons the basics of reading and performing music. These schools operated independently of any congregation or denomination and were run by itinerant teachers who were often self-taught in music (Pen 212). With a revived interest in church music, composers introduced new tunes that ignored European "scientific" musical theory and broke many of the rules of Western musical composition. One of the most famous of these singing masters was William Billings (1746-1800), a Boston tanner who composed some of the earliest American music.
In the early to mid-nineteenth century, musicians in northeast urban centers became enamored of European styles of composition and came to regard the kind of music taught in the singing schools as crude. Musicians such as Lowell Mason (1792-1872) began an ardent campaign against the singing schools and the kind of music they promoted. Mason and the "better music" advocates helped insure that European standards would be the basis of the musical curriculum in public schools.
The singing school migrated south and west. Although critics pursued the tradition (Lowell Mason's brother, Timothy, moved to Cincinnati (Bealle, 29)), it put down firm roots in regions of the South. As immigrants moved southward from Pennsylvania into Virginia and the Carolinas, singing masters and their singing schools followed. The Shenandoah Valley proved fertile ground. (Cobb 1989, 66). Singing schools and gatherings provided a social institution much appreciated by rural farmers. The schools' success increased the demand for tune books.
Sometime around 1798, William Little and William Smith of Philadelphia compiled The Easy Instructor, likely published in Albany, New York (for problems of dating and place of publication, see Metcalf, 89-97; Lowens and Britton, 115-37; Bealle 269, n. 1). This compilation of primarily American music incorporated shape-notes, or patent-notes, for the first time. To make sight-reading easier, a unique shape was assigned to each of the four syllables (fa, sol, la, and mi) commonly used to represent the seven-note scale (fa, sol, la, fa, so, la, mi). This system became popular for use both in the singing schools and in songbooks. Although numerous books were printed with shape notes, none have had the staying power of The Sacred Harp.
A page from the 1850 edition of B. F. White's and E. J. King's The Sacred Harp. The title, "Northfield," refers to the tune on which the arrangement is based and not to the lyrics of the hymn. Image courtesy of Emory University Pitts Theology Library.
Although originally published in Philadelphia in 1844, The Sacred Harp was compiled and edited by Benjamin Franklin White and E. J. King (ca. 1821-1844) in Hamilton, Georgia. It thrived especially around the foothills of the Appalachians that stretch into northern Georgia and Alabama, and accrued strong followings in parts of northern Mississippi and some locales of Tennessee as well. George Pullen Jackson speculated in 1944 that "aside from the Holy Bible, the book found oftenest in the homes of rural southern people is without doubt the big oblong volume of song called The Sacred Harp" (Jackson 1944, 7). Although other song books continued to be printed using shape-notes, most eventually adopted the seven-shape system (representing the seven syllables do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti), and after the mid-nineteenth century, the tunes in these books came to be increasingly influenced by gospel styles.
The Spaces of Sacred Harp
|Mt. Zion Methodist Church, Mt. Zion, GA, July 2005. Image courtesy of Matt and Erica Hinton.|
The Sacred Harp and the American music it preserves have survived. Not only did the singing school persist in regions of the South, but another social institution developed to carry Sacred Harp music forward — the singing convention. Conventions would last several days and bring together the faithful, many traveling several days to attend. Since rural congregations were often served by circuit riders who rotated through a group of churches, it proved easy to find an empty building for a weekend of singing, despite the lack of official denominational support.
Sacred Harp found a special ally in the Primitive Baptists who resisted the modernization of church music (Cobb 1989, 5). To this day, many singings are held in Primitive Baptist churches, though Methodist and Missionary Baptist churches are frequently used. In addition to the larger conventions, which persist in a slightly altered form, regular local singings are scheduled, usually on the same day each year (for example, the third Sunday and prior Saturday in March), and often at the same location.
Empty church with pews arranged for Sacred Harp singing. Wilson's Chapel, site of the Chattahoochee Convention (the oldest annual Sacred Harp convention), Carrolton, GA, August 2005. Image courtesy of Matt and Erica Hinton.
The arrangement of space within the church expresses the emphasis that singers place on participation. In a typical Protestant church, row after row of pews face a pulpit or lectern, and the choir faces the congregation. For a Sacred Harp singing, however, the seating resists any suggestion that a divide might exist between "performer" and "audience." The people sit in four sections. Altos face tenors, and trebles face basses. This arrangement of singers forms a hollow square in the center. In this square stands a leader. Throughout the day, participants will take turns leading one or two songs (see: "Leading Sacred Harp Music"). Anyone, young or old, male or female, with basic competence in the music is encouraged to take a turn leading. Time permitting, everyone who wants to lead will get a chance.Leading a song means far more to Sacred Harp singers than the opportunity to select a favorite piece of music. Standing in the hollow square, the leader is at the center of the space where all the sound converges. Singers consistently emphasize that the experience of the music is most powerful from the hollow square.
Reba Dell Windom leads "Schenectady," at Holly Springs Primitive Baptist Church, Bremen, GA, June 2004. Image courtesy of Matt and Erica Hinton.
Although the lyrics of many songs come from the pens of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and John Newton, tunes may be the work of a farmer recalling fiddle melodies (Pen 217; Cobb 1989, 73-74; for more detail on this topic, see Horn). Ultimately, tracing the authorship of songs in The Sacred Harp is tricky business, since many of the ascriptions are inaccurate. A composer might avoid his or her own name out of modesty and choose to dedicate the song to another by using the other person’s name.
Sacred Harp singers use a narrow range of dynamics — every song should be loud. And with their unique performance practices comes a distinct taste in performance spaces. Singers prefer the small, wooden, country churches similar to those that would have nourished this music in its infancy. The walls are unadorned, surfaces should be hard, and the floors should not be carpeted. A square building with relatively low ceilings serves the acoustical tastes of these singers better than vaulted ceilings (Pen 226). Concert halls engineered for modern tastes may be used at times or for special performances, but they are not preferred.
Sacred Harp singers do not spend the entire day inside the confines of the church. Around midday they break for dinner on the grounds. Spread over several tables, a sumptuous potluck meal, usually eaten outside, awaits the singers. Mississippi artist Ethel Mohamed vividly captured images of activities both inside and outside the church building through her embroidery and reminiscences.
When a singing is held at a rural church, the cemetery on the church grounds often becomes another focal space, especially for singers with local ties. Singings often coincide with the homecoming of a congregation or family, when the widely dispersed return to renew acquaintances and pay tribute to ancestors by decorating their graves (see: "Sacred Harp Singings"). Just before or after dinner on the grounds, singings often feature a "memorial lesson," during which songs are dedicated to the memories of the singers who have died in the last year. Some annual singings are dedicated to deceased stalwarts of the tradition.
Holly Springs Primitive Baptist Church, Bremen, GA, June 2004.
Image courtesy of Matt and Erica Hinton.
Despite the value placed on continuity with "the old paths," the living Sacred Harp boasts local variety. Although the Denson revision of The Sacred Harp is by far the most popular, two other revisions maintain followings, especially where the shape-note tradition was somewhat late spreading. The Cooper book is used especially in western Florida and the lower regions of Alabama and Mississippi, as well as in parts of Texas. The White book is used in some singings in east Atlanta and northwest Georgia (Cobb 1989, 6-7).
Map of Cooper Book Usage
Map of White Book Usage
The Southern Harmony published in 1835 by William Walker is another four-shape book still in use (for an online edition, see: The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion). It has served as the songbook for only one long-standing annual singing held in Benton, Kentucky, but it has recently been picked up at some new singings. In 1866, Walker published a seven-shape songbook entitled Christian Harmony. This book included recent hymns and reflected the influence of gospel-style music. It remains the staple of numerous singings in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama (see: The Christian Harmony Singings). Some Sacred Harp singers will include a song or two from the Christian Harmony at their own singings. Christian Harmony is one of several seven-shape books that remain in use.
|Frontispiece of The Colored Sacred Harp, 1934. Image courtesy of Emory University Pitts Theology Library.|
There also exists an African American Sacred Harp tradition, primarily in northwestern Florida and southeast Alabama, as well as in northern Mississippi and eastern Texas (Cobb 1989, 6). Most Black Sacred Harp singers use the Cooper book; however, those in northern Mississippi prefer the Denson book (Cobb 1989, 7). (For an essay on Black Sacred Harp singing in Mississippi, see: Chiquita Walls's "Mississippi's African American Shape Note Tradition." On African American Sacred Harp singing in East Texas, see: Donald R. Ross's "Black Sacred Harp Singing in East Texas.") Black Sacred Harp singers of the “Wiregrass” region of southeast Alabama supplement the Cooper book with The Colored Sacred Harp, a short tune-book that contains music written by African American composers. (source: "Tunebooks, Music and Hymnals"; "Judge Jackson and the Colored Sacred Harp"; also Willett 50-55. All songs are by Black composers with the single exception of "Eternal Truth Thy Word" by Bascom F. Faust, a white banker who put up one thousand dollars to help subsidize the publication of the book; Willett 53.)
Map of Wiregrass Region of Alabama
Areas of Black Sacred Harp Activity
African American Sacred Harp Audio:
"Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers" (10:27 min.)
This program in the Folkways Radio Series features musical performances along with discussion by singing masters Japheth Jackson and Dewey Williams, and Williams's daughter, Bernice Harvey.
From the Folkways radio series courtesy of Alabama Center for Traditional Culture.
Image of Wiregrass Singers from Alabama Center for Traditional Culture.
Sacred Harp as Folk Tradition
The Wootten family of the Sand Mountain region in Alabama has helped to preserve the Sacred Harp tradition for many generations. In this photo, Terry Wootten leads a song at Holly Springs Primitive Baptist Church in Bremen, GA. The Wootten Family, with Terry Wootten leading, performed most musical selections included in this essay ("Pisgah" is performed by the Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers). Image courtesy of Matt and Erica Hinton.
|Map of the Sand Mountain Region|
Many of the audio selections in this piece are performed by the Wootten family, most of whom live in north Alabama. Many hail from the Sand Mountain region, especially the communities of Ider and Henagar. Sacred Harp singers know the Wootten family for their distinct style of leading. If a song is in 4/4 time, the leader will wave his or her hand left and right at the bottom of the down-stroke to account for all the beats, rather than using the simpler up and down motion which most leaders employ (Cobb 1995, 42). The Woottens also tend to sing slowly.
Sacred Harp and the Pastoral
So fades the lovely blooming flow'r,
Frail, smiling solace of an hour;
So soon our transient comforts fly,
And pleasure only blooms to die.
Sweet rivers of redeeming love
Lie just before mine eyes,
Had I the pinions of a dove,
I'd to those rivers fly;
I'd rise superior to my pain,
With joy outstrip the wind,
I'd cross o'er Jordan's stormy waves
And leave the world behind.
My troubles will be o'er;
I hope to join the heav'nly host
On Canaan's happy shore.
My raptured soul shall drink and feast
In love's unbounded sea;
The glorious hope of endless rest
Is ravishing for me.
— John Adam Granade, "Sweet Rivers," The Sacred Harp (1991), 61.
"The Promised Land" includes the lyrics:
On Jordan's stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan's fair and happy land
Where my possessions lie.
O the transporting, rapt'rous scene
That rises to my sight!
Sweet fields arrayed in living green,
And rivers of delight.
Filled with delight, my raptured soul
Would here no longer stay!
Though Jordan's waves around me roll,
Fearless I'd launch away.
— Samuel Stennet, The Sacred Harp (1991), 128.
Sacred Harp joins sacred sound with sacred space in a sociable event. From the printed pages of The Sacred Harp, musical space is negotiated by means of relative pitch to accommodate the range of the day's singers. Songs typically provide each part (bass, tenor, alto, treble) with a good musical line to sing. The physical space of Sacred Harp singing is arranged so that the center of worship is where all voices converge. The hollow square orients this space; its center is where the music is experienced in the balance of voices and at its loudest. Entrance into this inner sanctuary requires no ordination, nor are there restrictions based on age, race, or gender in current practice. Adherence to specific creeds or the lack of formal profession of Christian faith does not restrict access. The sacred does not inhere in an altar, a sacrament, or a church building. The priority is that the room be "live" and conducive to the sound. Where they gather, the singers create the space.
The uniqueness of Sacred Harp space evokes its origins in colonial American singing schools which sought to broaden musical education. By mid-nineteenth century, shape note music had lost out in northern urban areas to more modern styles. The 1844 publication of The Sacred Harp signified the successful migration of the music and the singing school to white yeoman-farming areas in several southern regions. Although early on the leading of songs tended to be restricted to male singers who were proficient in the music (Cobb 1989, 142-43), Sacred Harp singings welcomed participants from any protestant denomination. During the Jim Crow era, African American singers developed a distinctive Sacred Harp style that continues today. The egalitarianism at the heart of the tradition may help explain the resurgence in popularity that this music has enjoyed. New singers, especially in urban areas or on university campuses where traditional styles are unfamiliar, easily learn to sing together.
The physical structures where singers have sung Sacred Harp have helped shape their musical tastes. Veterans prefer square, wooden buildings such as rural churches and schoolhouses. The pastoral lyrics provide continuity between many participants' rural experience and the image of heaven the songs describe. And, although the tradition is portable, many of the sites for annual singings become touchstones for dispersed individuals and families. The notion of "homecoming" suggests a return while implying the dispersions and disruptions of modernity and urbanization.
For years confined to the US South, Sacred Harp singings are now held throughout the country, from Florida to Washington, from California to Maine. Outside of the southeast, singings are especially prominent in New England and in the states along the West Coast, as well as in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan [see 2004 Singings Map ]. England is home to frequent singings, and singings can be found in eastern Canada. The Sacred Harp is open to any and all willing to seek out the hollow square.
Prof. Don Saliers leads at Cannon Chapel, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, February 2005.
Image courtesy of Patrick Graham.
About this Essay
Most of the sound clips in this essay feature the Wootten family from the Sand Mountain region of Alabama. These performances aired in 1995 on the radio show Folk Masters, recorded at the Barns of Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, and produced and hosted by folklorist Nick Spitzer. I am indebted to Matt and Erica Hinton for images from their documentary Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, and to Matt for teaching me about this music. For additional images from the excellent collection of Sacred Harp hymnals and materials found in the Emory University Pitts Theology Library, I am grateful to Patrick Graham, John Weaver, Debra Madera, the staff of Special Collections and Archives and for the Robert W. Woodruff Library Fellowship which enabled me to research and write this essay.
About the Author
James B. Wallace is a PhD candidate in New Testament Studies in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University.