“The Sacred Harp – 1991 Edition”

The Sacred Harp

If you’re going down an internet wormhole, choose a nice, cheerful one! There’s plenty on the web to send you off on depressing topics – war, racism, mental illness. Today I’m wandering through articles on vocal music and American heritage.

I encountered the Sacred Harp tradition in the early 2000s, at a Quaker weekend retreat in Pennsylvania. I took a workshop called “Shape Note Singing”. It was led by a no-nonsense man who arranged us into a choir, passed out hymn books and led us using very simplified conducting.

The music on the page, however, was a puzzle to me! The notes were round, square, triangular or diamond shaped! Everything was in four part harmony. We weren’t performing or rehearsing, we were simply singing! Those experienced in Shape Note singing could pretty much get it all right the first time. I struggled, substituting la-la-la for the words, but it was fun. 

Later I bought myself a copy of the The Sacred Harp and a few CDs. 

Musical recordings were first made about 160 years ago. Before that, you could only hear live performances. Imagine how precious they were!

Musical notation made it possible to share music with those who couldn’t hear it live, and even those who had no instruments. A tune can be conveyed by solfege, the use of syllables to convey intervals. You know, do-re-mi. Multipart music requires something more complex, hence musical staffs with notes and symbols. Shape note singing somewhat resembles the widely used modern staff notation. It’s an American system used mostly for four part vocal works. 

Sacred Harp music is religious. In the book, it says

“…music (is) the greatest art and science to attract the attention of mankind since the advent of the human family into the world. God himself, in the beginning, set all things to music, even before man was made…”

Music is mentioned in the Old Testament almost 4000 years before Christ. Great events have long been celebrated with music. The term “Sacred Harp” refers to the human voice, the free gift given to all of us.

Sacred Harp music is participatory. You attend a “singing”, not a “concert”. At http://www.fasola.org, I found singings listed at many locations. Nothing in NJ, but three locations in Pennsylvania. Outside the US, events are held in six different countries. If you get an opportunity, try it!

State College (PA) Sacred Harp all day sing, 2011

1 thought on ““The Sacred Harp – 1991 Edition”

  1. Your post reminded me of how much fun this can be! I went to a 2 day “sing” in Wellesley, MA a number of years ago. The songs were simple, but I never really mastered the notation. I’m looking forward to when in-person, maskless singing of all genres is allowed again!

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