A Sacred Harp primer with Matt Hinton

Atlanta-based filmmaker and chair of the United Sacred Harp Musical Association explains Sacred Harp Singing

Sacred Harp Singing, or shape note singing, is a style of a capella music delivered with and experienced by the entire body. The singers range from young to old, amateur to experienced, and gather in a simple but effective four-part mass, belting out each four-note hymnal with untrained voices and all-encompassing enthusiasm. Best profiled in the documentary "Awake, My Soul" - a film directed by Matt and Erica Hinton here in Atlanta - Sacred Harp's group-led dynamic is somewhat of a niche phenomenon, but one that's celebrated around the world. In preparation of the 110th Annual Session of the United Sacred Harp Musical Association (USHMA), Matt Hinton, who also serves as Vice Chair of USHMA, offered some insight into what Sacred Harp really means by explaining a few things Sacred Harp isn't.

Five Things Sacred Harp Isn't:

1. Harp music
In fact, there are no instruments at all. Sacred Harp singing is early American, a cappella, "shape note" hymn singing. This style of singing developed in churches in the 1700's, at a time when instruments were not widely employed. By around 1800, the distinctively American innovation of "shape note" musical notation began to be used in very many songbooks of the period. Before even Shakespeare's time, the notes of musical scales were associated with different syllables. Fa, sol, la, and mi were the syllables that, through a bit of repetition, represented each degree of the musical scale. So, for the seven tones of the major scale: 1-fa, 2-sol, 3-la, 4-fa, 5-sol, 6-la, 7-mi, (8-fa). Most of us are familiar with the seven syllable version, made popular by The Sound of Music, and, perhaps, your music teacher. But this four syllable version was earlier, and like many of the archaic English words that survived in America but not in England, fa, sol, la, and mi had a foothold in the states, in large measure because of the early American composers who taught (often very well attended) singing schools using this English system.

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Shapenote singing, while in other respects is like conventional musical notation, is distinctive in that it applies a different shape for each syllable: triangle is fa, circle is sol, square is la and diamond is mi. Sacred Harp singing is by far the most significant surviving example of this seemingly archaic musical style, some of which predates Mozart. It gets its name from the songbook that is employed by these singers. The Sacred Harp was published in Hamilton, GA in 1844 by BF White, who is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Cabbagetown and by White's associate, EJ King. The title of this hymnal is often thought to refer to the instrument that we are all endowed with at birth: the human voice.

2. Choir music
Yes, it is people singing in a group, separated into four vocal parts (the melody part is called tenor, and men and women sing it an octave apart. The high harmony is called treble, also sung by men and women with high voices. Women with lower voices sing the alto part and men with lower voices sing the bass. There is no part called "soprano."). But, the first thing anyone notices when they come to a Sacred Harp singing is the peculiar arrangement of the parts: tenors face the altos, and trebles face the basses, leaving an empty space (called the "hollow square" by the singers) that is filled by a different leader for each song. In other words, whereas choirs are usually oriented toward an audience or a congregation in a posture of performance, Sacred Harp singers don't sing for an audience at all, unless that audience be God and the other singers.

It has often been called "singers' music" rather than "listeners' music," in large measure because it is the Jesus and Mary Chain of vocal music, backs turned to whatever audience might come, not out of disdain for an audience, but because an "audience" is irrelevant to the singing. It would continue in precisely the same way whether there are other people to hear it or not. People who come to singings for the purpose of listening are always welcome, but Sacred Harp singers usually see them as potential singers and friends rather than someone to entertain. The native habitat of Sacred Harp is an "all day singing and dinner on the grounds." These musical and social events happen somewhere within driving distance of Atlanta (and beyond) almost every weekend of the year.

Singers gather and sing in the morning until noon at which time they eat what is usually the best food that is available to human beings (i.e. made by older ladies from the rural South). Then they sing for another 2 hours. By the end of the day, as many as 100 songs will have been sung at full voice. But there is neither applause nor a thought that it is a rehearsal of some kind. The experience of singing is an end in itself. If the Sacred Harp singers manage to sing for most of the time, eat good food, and catch up with old friends in the process, they have done what they came to do, with no other motive but edification. There is never an admission charged and the only thing one must buy is the Sacred Harp a collection of over 500 songs available almost at cost ($20) from the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, headquartered 45 minutes west of Atlanta in Carrollton, GA.

3. Pretty
Sacred Harp singing has been called many things: bold, brash, powerful, loud, haunting, beautiful maybe, but rarely is it called pretty. These are not trained voices attempting to blend for an audience, but on the contrary, they are rough-hewn voices - voices of human beings singing not auto-tuned nor particularly tame. It's the voice you use in the car when you know no one is listening because, in this case, no one is. Hardly anyone is louder than Sacred Harp singers.

4. Southern
Well, it is and it isn't. Yes, the Sacred Harp was published in the South by Southerners and was revised, nurtured, and kept alive by Southerners, but ever since the 1970's there have been occasional bursts of interests among others. Taught by such apostles of Sacred Harp as Hugh McGraw of Bremen GA, Charlene Wallace of Mt Zion, GA and many others, new singing communities emerged in New England, the Midwest and the West. Now, one can sing on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on the first Saturday of each month, San Francisco on Sundays and Mondays, Thursdays in Hyde Park, Chicago, Tuesday nights in Northampton, MA, and the second and fourth Wednesday on the Westside of Atlanta.

In in the past five years, the growth of interest in this singing has been exponential, due, in part to the use of Sacred Harp songs in the soundtracks of Cold Mountain, Gangs of New York, and Lawless, our PBS aired documentary, "Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp", as well as samples of Sacred Harp field recordings in songs by Bruce Springsteen, M.I.A., the Chariot, and others. Now, there is Sacred Harp singing in England, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Australia, and beyond. As one might expect, some of the motivations for singing are not the same for the "traditional" southern singers as they are for many of the newer singers, but cultural, religious, and political differences are navigated with few bruised sensibilities most weekends of the year.

This weekend, at the United Sacred Harp Convention, being held at Church of Our Saviour in Virginia Highlands, there will be singers from across America, from Germany, England, and Ireland. They are coming to Atlanta for the exclusive reason of singing. There will also be many Southern singers, bearing fried chicken, BBQ, turnip greens, and sweet tea.

5. Popular
If you are, at this moment, simultaneously reading this and being a human, there is a statistical likelihood that you do not like Sacred Harp singing. If you have never heard Sacred Harp singing, SPOILER ALERT you probably won't like it. I, and others like me, don't understand why you don't, but I don't understand why people like sour cream either (it's a sour dairy product, folks! What are we, animals!?) Now, people say they like Sacred Harp because in certain circles, it's cool to like Sacred Harp. We made a soundtrack to our film that includes various artists (such as Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, Doc Watson, Elvis Perkins, Atlanta's Tenement Halls, Jim Lauderdale, and others) performing their arrangements of Sacred Harp songs as well as "normal" Sacred Harp singing. The reviews were very strong, as we knew they would be, because no self-respecting music critic would give a Sacred Harp singing a negative review. Even if they don't understand it, it is hard not to be struck by the shear otherworldliness of it, the power of it, its stubborn refusal to conform to the standards of the world. For these reasons, it is often called the punk rock of choral music.

From the beginning, Sacred Harp and the tradition it came from has stridently made a practice of disobeying classical "rules" of musical composition. The parts cross each other regularly and parallel fifths (think: "power chords") are employed regularly. In part, these rebellious tendencies were why it fell out of favor in the North in the mid 1800's. By the late 1800's, Sacred Harp was to be found only in the South, in disparate singing communities throughout Georgia and Alabama, primarily.

In an effort to unify these singing communities, the first convention of the United Sacred Harp Musical Association was held at the Tabernacle (yes, that Tabernacle) in 1905. But it was already clear that, like in the North before, the urban areas, even in the South, were losing the ability to relate to this music that was already considered to be hopelessly old fashioned, having more to do with the musical norms of the middle ages than with modern gospel music and the forms of popular music that were beginning to be distributed on cylinders and records. But, in 1905, Sacred Harp in Atlanta was still thriving. Even though the Atlanta newspaper ran an article titled "They're Reviving The Old-Fashioned Songs," thousands of people came to sing, belying the sentiment of the title.

The newspaper accounts of the early years of the singing consistently wonder at the volume of such a mass of people that could be heard blocks away. By the 1930's The United Convention moved to the Municipal Auditorium (Alumni Hall at GSU), and was held for the last time in Atlanta in 1956. The idea of this music as rural and anachronistic won the day. The United Sacred Harp Convention moved to smaller towns, such as Carrolton, GA, Fyffe, AL, and Henagar, AL. This Saturday and Sunday will be the first time the United Sacred Harp Convention has been held in Atlanta since 1956. You should come and find out exactly how much you don't like it.

The 110th Annual Session of the United Sacred Harp Musical Association at Church of Our Saviour, 1068 North Highland Ave. Free. Sat., Sept. 7. 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and Sun., Sept. 8. 10 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.