The Sacred Harp: feeling sorry for the devil?

Mesmerizing. Passionate. Fascinating. Joyful. Loud. Beautiful. Complex. Lusty. Unpolished. These are adjectives I describe shape note singing with.

We were first introduced to shape note music by friends in Virginia Beach. They had an album called the Goostly Psalmes (reissued as Early American Choral Music, volume 2) that Elizabeth and I fell in love with. The album featured several shape note style songs from America’s earliest composers.

Though “shape note” refers to a method of teaching music and not the type of music itself, it can refer to a distinctive style of singing characterized by a capella singing, frequent fugues, polyphonic textures, and other more musically technical things I’m not qualified to explain. This singing is more accurately called Sacred Harp singing, named after a famous 19th century hymnal of the same name.

Example of shape note notation

Recently, Sacred Harp has entered the mainstream (relatively speaking) thanks to Derek Webb’s new album, Ctrl. He samples several Sacred Harp songs on this album, creating a rich texture even though he only uses his voice, a single nylon-string guitar, Sacred Harp samples, and electronic percussion. I am enjoying Webb’s album, and started to look into the history and practice of Sacred Harp as a result. In my reading, I came across the film Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, which we watched last weekend. The film is well done, giving a history of Sacred Harp hymns, shape notes, the format of the all-day sings, and even some music theory. I highly recommend it.

Let’s just say I have a renewed interest (obsession?) in Sacred Harp. The singing is mesmerizing: robust, complex, and beautiful. Some might even call it lusty. It is difficult to describe in writing, so check out the trailer for the film before reading on:

Many of the Sacred Harp hymn texts were written by Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and other familiar hymnwriters. Even very different musical versions of “Amazing Grace, “Come Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing,” and “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand” are in the Sacred Harp hymnal. The hymn texts are available online, though audio versions of tunes are more difficult to find. Tunes that might be familiar include Montgomery, Greenwich, Russia (the tune to Psalm 119X in the Book of Psalms for Singing), Rainbow, and perhaps my personal favorite, Bridgewater. Note that singers first sing through the tune using fa, so, la, and mi before singing the hymn text. One of the draws to Sacred Harp singing is the rampant joy evidenced in the wall of sound, the mirthful smiles, and the passionate expressions. The rule of thumb is that if you can hear the person next to you, you aren’t singing loud enough.

But the music and volume aren’t the only things going for Sacred Harp. That is, it’s not just experientially about the music like so much of the fluff you hear on positive, encouraging radio stations or in contemporary “worship experiences.” To put it bluntly, the music of the Sacred Harp isn’t emotionally manipulative to hide shallow words. On the contrary, most (though not all!) of these songs have poetic, theologically rich words that span a wide range of emotions and experience, much like the Psalms. In fact, many of the words are Isaac Watts’ paraphrases of the Psalms:

Early my God, without delay, I haste to seek Thy face;
My thirsty spirit faints away without Thy cheering grace.
So pilgrims on the scorching sand, beneath a burning sky,
Long for a cooling stream at hand, and they must drink or die.
-Isaac Watts (Montgomery)

This isn’t to say that the music isn’t stirring. It definitely is. Enough to make a city newspaper write, “Get enough people singing weird harmonies at the top of their voices and you start feeling a little sorry for the devil.” It’s the best of both worlds: text and music.

The film points out that when the sweet, schmaltzy revivalist hymns of the mid-to-late 1800s came along (thanks to Charles Finney and others who strove for a formulaic, methods-driven, human-centered, easy-believism evangelism), the more “difficult” songs of the Sacred Harp were forced out of mainstream urban areas to the rural South, where they are still being sung today by young and old alike. Thankfully, Sacred Harp singing is gaining exposure, and all-day sings are popping up around the country.

For more resources on Sacred Harp singing, visit awakemysoul.com or fasola.org. See if there’s an all-day sing near you! For multimedia content, search YouTube for Sacred Harp, pick the film up, or check out a wide range of Sacred Harp albums.

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One thought on “The Sacred Harp: feeling sorry for the devil?

  1. Man, I wish I could describe what I felt when I was watching that video. So cool. It reminds me of our Hymn sings at Covenant Heritage. Singing to God harmoniously with the people of God who mean it is literally awesome. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say a real revival in the church might look something like this: The church gets convicted about being passive spectators in worship and intentionally lifts up their voices to heaven in unity with their brothers in Christ to sing His praises. Weird harmonies or not, may the Lord teach us to sing.

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