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The Sacred Harp and All-day Singings

Copied from the Information page  of the "Awake, My Soul" website, which looks at the American tradition.

The Sacred Harp is a 19th century shape-note songbook which contains many of America's earliest songs. Published in Hamilton, Georgia in 1844, The Sacred Harp was one of the last of the old fashioned "four shaped" oblong songbooks compiled in America. The term also refers to the type of a cappella, four part, participatory singing associated with this and other similar songbooks. No instruments are used. Only the one given by God, the human voice: That is, the "sacred harp."


One might say that The Sacred Harp was the crowning achievement of a trajectory of American music which began during the American Revolution, when itinerant, and largely self-taught, singing masters began offering singing schools to communities across New England. These singing school teachers, such as William Billings, filled a real need in early American communities. The congregational singing in the churches, according to contemporary accounts, left much to be desired. The congregations were, by and large, musically illiterate and the number of tunes that they knew by heart was small. The singing masters both taught people to sing and they provided new songs which they themselves composed. These songs were compiled in tune-books often alongside songs written by others. Thus, a vast body of music emerged in the late 1700's and into the 1800's.


The teaching methods employed by these early singing masters seem to have been similar to those of their English counterparts: students learned musical scales through the use of solfege, the practice of associating each musical tone with a different syllable. The early American singing masters taught the version of solfege which was in current use in England: Fa, Sol, La, and Mi. This differed from the continental seven syllable version which is in modern use to this day and which will be familiar to anyone who has seen the "Sound of Music:" Doh, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, and back to Doh. Soon the American teaching methods began to distinguish themselves from all others with the advent of "shaped notes." During the turn of the 19th Century, the first of many shape-note songbooks was published.


These new songbooks associated four distinct shapes (triangle, circle, square, and diamond) with the four syllables then in common use. The written music looked like conventional musical notation apart from the fact that the note-heads each had different shapes rather than the usual oval notes. This innovation allowed students to sing the notes of an unfamiliar tune without being burdened by concentrating on the words at the same moment. Therefore, the practice of "singing the notes" -in order to fix the tune in one's memory- before singing the words, began. This is a practice which has survived to the present day in the Sacred Harp tradition and is one of the real distinguishing marks of this music.


Over time, the "homespun" music associated with the singing schools fell out of favour in the North-eastern region of America and it began to travel to the frontier- South and West. Many of the northern elites who were influenced by the cultural and musical norms of Europe, found this music to be unsophisticated, old fashioned, and even unscientific. Many of the musical elements which make the music so distinctive, so "ancient-sounding," and yet so compelling to modern ears, were the very elements which the "better music" leaders, as they were called, found so objectionable. And indeed, the music clearly disregards many of the rules of musical composition which have ruled the day since the time of Bach. However, this strange music found a home in the south, in particular, and this movement south introduced new (and old) songs to the shape-note songbooks which were becoming increasingly popular in these areas.


The camp-meeting songs, and so-called "folk hymns" (which were often related to tunes which had been passed down for generations and which originated in the Old World) became an important part of the shape-note songbooks which were published in the first half of the 19th century. "The Sacred Harp," like the popular "Southern Harmony" before it, is typical of this blend of New England hymnody with the southern-tinged and often ancient, modal melodies which were being added to these books.


For a variety of reasons, but especially because of the tenacity of it's compiler, B.F. White, and those who followed in his footsteps, "The Sacred Harp" has survived the various attempts in the past 150+ years to render it obsolete by the introduction of newer, more "progressive" types of hymns. However, for most of the time since it's publication, it has remained "under the radar:" Always in some danger of extinction, but never in any real danger of being co-opted by those who would attempt to tame it and make it more musically "correct" and "pretty."


In many ways, the story of "The Sacred Harp" is a story of the stubborn refusal to give up its old ways and a story of the subversion of the cultural and musical norms of the society that does not understand it. It has been sung in annual all day "singings" and conventions, complete with the traditional "dinner on the grounds," every year since its publication, usually in old country churches. While its traditional home has been in the south, (especially Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas) there has been, for the past 30 years, a remarkable revival of interest in this old music throughout the rest of the country. More and more, people are coming under the spell of this haunting, powerful, and deeply spiritual music which is as old as America itself.


Sacred Harp singing is most often found in the context of "all-day singings," which are neither performances nor rehearsals for a performances. They are just singings. At an all-day singing, which traditionally last from 9:30-3:00, anyone present may stand in the midst of the singers and lead any one, of the more than 500 songs in "The Sacred Harp" hymnal, of their choosing. These leaders, are constrained only by the traditional rule that a song may not be led more than once in a day-long singing. Each leader will stand in the centre of the "hollow square," which aptly describes the space in the centre of the room created by the unusual seating arrangement.


The singers sit in sections, according to the range of their voices, and each of the four sections, which correspond to the four staves of music in the book, face one other section. That is, the Tenors (who consist of both men and women, singing an octave apart) face the Altos (usually only women), and the Basses (only men) face the the Trebles (men and women, singing an octave apart). The leader stands in the midst of this whirlwind of sound, which has been called "old fashioned surround sound", and leads the song he has chosen while keeping the class on the same rhythm by "beating time" with his hand.


The hollow square is the best place to hear this powerful music. As Richard Ivey describes this experience in "Awake, My Soul": Sometimes, I feel that I'm just being lifted up off the ground."


All-day singings consist of two basic elements: singing and eating. What sacred harp singers may lack in technical attainment in these areas, they more than make up for in enthusiasm.


There has never been a singing yet recorded where a singer went home hungry. The singers bring food, in oftentimes comical proportions. Half "regular" food, half deserts. There is no membership or fees associated with Sacred Harp singing and anyone is welcome to attend any of the numerous singings which can now be found in any area in America and in some foreign countries [including, of course, the UK! - Ed.]. While Sacred Harp singing is clearly a part of the Christian tradition, anyone is welcome to sing, regardless of her faith or lack thereof. Just don't come expecting a performance.


This Web Site has been set up for the United Kingdom Sacred Harp and Shapenote Community in order to provide a resource centre for singing in the United Kingdom.  Any correspondence, helpful suggestions and contributions as to content, amendments, additions and new web links should be sent to      Contents of this website � 1998-2019 Edwin and Sheila Macadam, Oxford, United Kingdom.