Let Everybody Sing
January 11, 2019 12:10 PM   Subscribe

"Deep in the antebellum bowels of Southern history, there emerged a style of gospel music called the Sacred Harp. Designed so untrained singers could sing by sight from hymnals, it produced an otherworldly, earthshakingly loud brand of music." posted by the man of twists and turns (51 comments total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
 
One of my ancestors was a traveling Sacred Harp teacher/salesman. It's an incredibly fun style to sing.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:14 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]


“Almost all music is written with a strong melody line,” she said. “We call that the lead line. Then, the three parts that harmonize with that, usually they are written just to harmonize. And they do. With this dispersed music, each line is a tune unto itself. It is not written just to harmonize with the lead. It's a tune unto itself. That's why they call it dispersed harmony.”

Ah! That's a great explanation. I love the way this sounds.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:22 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]


My singing group did a piece in this style this past season, and even without the singing convention sociability around it (which I can only imagine adds to the experience), it is a tremendously enjoyable way to perform music.
posted by brentajones at 12:33 PM on January 11


Great article.

I love Sacred Harp. This is one my all-time favorites. I've actually sung it with a choir when I was in high school. Still gets in my head from time to time.
posted by thivaia at 12:35 PM on January 11 [5 favorites]


wow, this is really incredible. Song of human voice - there is so much potential. This is a delightful antidote to the "rock band" worship music I grew up with.
posted by rebent at 12:42 PM on January 11


this is awesome. Looks like they set the camera up outside the building. Yet, even outside, such great audio.
posted by rebent at 12:47 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


I sing Sacred Harp! It really is so beautiful and so much fun. Now I'm sad that I'm going to miss this month's singing.
posted by capricorn at 12:47 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]


I didn't know this existed, and I'm glad I know about it now. It's the kind of musical tradition I love, because it's quite literally make a joyful noise to the Lord without a care in the world for how any individual singer sounds. The power of the group is kind of amazing.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 12:59 PM on January 11 [6 favorites]


Anyone could do it, as long as someone’s voice or an instrument could sing out the root note of the key in which the song was written, because “do” moves with the key. No matter the key — C, B-flat, G-sharp, whatever — “do” is the root note. By recognizing the shapes and hearing that root note, you could sing any piece of music you picked up.

as long as it doesn't modulate, I guess
posted by thelonius at 1:01 PM on January 11


This looks and sounds amazing. Sacred harpers, do you wear earplugs when you do it? The recordings themselves were so loud, I'm wondering what it's like to actually be IN the room.
posted by rogerroger at 1:05 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


I have never been able to understand this:

Sacred Harp had the shaped notes I knew so well, but not all seven of them.....

Fa. Sol. La. Mi. Only four.”Fa” covers the root note and the fourth up the scale, “sol” the second and fifth, and “la” the third and sixth. “Mi” covers the seventh note only. Strange, I thought.


What possible advantage could this provide? It seems to introduce only confusion, a regression from a system where one name denotes one pitch to one where it's unclear what note is meant.

What's perhaps worse, in the lower tetrachord of the scale, the interval between "la" and the next "fa" is a half-step; in the upper, it's a minor third.
posted by thelonius at 1:06 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


...and if the shape of the note is supposed to resolve the ambiguity, what's the point of even using the solfege names?
posted by thelonius at 1:07 PM on January 11


Shape note singing! Want to try it, but don't live in the South? There's a group for that!
posted by heyitsgogi at 1:09 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


Shape note isn't the sort of music that modulates, no. The shapes and names are redundant, they support a range of backgrounds of singers that are not professional, if not untrained.

I'd be fascinated to see music theory that can account for what makes this so good. The fact that this music would be less beautiful if everyone was in tune. All the music theory I find so far is stuck in archaic 19th century prescriptive scientism. Surely there's a modern descriptive version of the field?
posted by idiopath at 1:18 PM on January 11 [6 favorites]


...and if the shape of the note is supposed to resolve the ambiguity, what's the point of even using the solfege names?

No, in the illustration, the shapes repeat with the names, except that the "fa" at the octave mysteriously switches orientation. So the only way to tell if "fa" means the tonic or the fourth is its position on the staff, just like with regular music notation. So I just don't see the point of this system. Maybe they just rely on the notion that if a note is written higher up, it means the fourth, fifth, or sixth, not the tonic, second, or third.
posted by thelonius at 1:24 PM on January 11


I eagerly clicked a link for the sacred harp site in the article, and of course "almost every US state" has a group but mine. I love the sound of this and want to participate. I love singing, and I love to sing in groups, just for the joy of it. There are so few opportunities to do it though, because it's so hard to get people to just sing without this self-conciousness that they aren't allowed to raise their voices unless they're amazing natural talents. This is exactly what I want!
posted by wellifyouinsist at 2:04 PM on January 11 [4 favorites]


as long as it doesn't modulate, I guess

Almost without exception, songs do not modulate. I'm saying "almost" because it's nagging at me that there might be one or two.

I've been singing Sacred Harp for just over five years. What I love most about it is that it is singing without performance.
posted by Smearcase at 2:22 PM on January 11 [8 favorites]


Germane to a conversation above: the four-note system is the main one in the US but it's not the only one. There's also a book in the same tradition that uses the same note names as regular solfege.
posted by Smearcase at 2:27 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


Oh, which is mentioned in the article. D'oh.
posted by Smearcase at 2:30 PM on January 11


Oh, of course it sounds like a capella heavy metal. It's not just that they sing loud. It uses open fifths a lot, which are also known as power chords. It's easy to imagine these harmonies on an electric guitar.
posted by Tesseractive at 2:38 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]


There's this Fijian song, Isa Lei, and I've wondered whether there was any sacred harp influence on its development. It's extremely popular for choral singing.
posted by orrnyereg at 2:50 PM on January 11


I grew up singing this in Georgia. Still do, when I go back to visit relatives. All our hymn books have shape notes. It can be deeply moving.

The singing and the potlucks are really the only parts of Church I miss, but I miss them a lot.
posted by darkstar at 3:01 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]


Some tunes you may know from church started out being sung (probably a lot more vigorously) from the Sacred Harp:

New Britain (Amazing Grace)

What Wondrous Love Is This

And it contains some really beautiful tunes like Sweet Prospect.

And the composer mentioned in the article, William Billings (sometimes called "America's first composer") wrote so many vigorous and beautiful pieces of music, many much more complex than a hymn tune. Some of my favorites:

AFRICA

SHILOH

I am the Rose of Sharon

The Lord is Risen Indeed

EUROCLYDON

(The tune name for a hymn is usually written in ALL CAPS to distinguish from the title of the text. The same tune is often used for multiple texts and vice versa.)
posted by straight at 3:14 PM on January 11 [8 favorites]


Thank you for the tip, straight - I just bought the album that “Sweet Prospect” hymn is from. :-)
posted by darkstar at 3:35 PM on January 11


It's really amusing to me how many of the YouTube videos of groups singing this are in Ireland or Germany.
posted by straight at 4:12 PM on January 11


I love Sacred Harp. This is one my all-time favorites.

Oh, wow, yes, I'd forgotten about that one but that "Hallelujah" is wonderful to sing.
posted by straight at 4:14 PM on January 11


oh, of course, it sounds like a capella heavy metal.

With the excellent stereo quality of the recordings, this reminds me a lot of Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dreams. Has the joyful sound of wide major harmonies pushed through buzzy sounds that seem to ripple and crackle all around you. So much fun.
posted by es_de_bah at 5:14 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


For those that didn't follow both links, while "Deep in the antebellum bowels of Southern history, there emerged a style of gospel music" has a nice ring to it, as the second link explains Sacred Harp originated in the singing schools of the northeast. True, they have been preserved in the south, but they didn't originate as antebellum southern anything. The fact that they survived is what's remarkable, I guess.

I can't claim any expertise, but I've led a song or two down at the school at Oxford, MS. Come early March, bring a book if you can, and vittles for dinner. Or find a school near you.
posted by grimjeer at 5:27 PM on January 11 [6 favorites]


rogerroger, You're right - being in the square can be LOUD. At a school you're often sitting next to someone who is singing at the top of their lungs all day. I've heard an Alto or two who could peel the paint from the walls. Sacred Harp is not gentle or peaceful music.

I like this description of Sacred Harp: "A typical singer, by one colorful account, wouldn't cross the street to hear Sacred Harp music, but would walk a mile in the snow to sing it."
posted by grimjeer at 5:34 PM on January 11 [15 favorites]


>There's this Fijian song, Isa Lei...

Fijian? It couldn't be what Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Ry Cooder Isa played that breaks my heart open every time I hear it...

IT IS!
posted by CheapB at 5:34 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


A little late for Christmas, but: 186 Sherburne
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:25 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


This scratches the same itch as the Bulgarian Women's Choir.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:06 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


except that the "fa" at the octave mysteriously switches orientation

maybe that's because the note stem switches to up-pointing there
posted by thelonius at 7:43 PM on January 11


A little late for Christmas, but: 186 Sherburne

Aw man, I haven't been a regular at a singing for a few years, but I don't need to click this link to remember which tune this is, and that one of the folks at the Ann Arbor singings liked to quip "While shepherds washed their socks by night..."

My favorite Sacred Harp song, and one of the newest, is 504 Wood Street (link goes to an interview with the composer + inline YouTube video).
posted by aws17576 at 7:47 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


On further study, I see that my own church tradition back in rural Georgia is not specifically in the Sacred Harp tradition.

Yes, our hymnals had shape notes, and yes, we sang a capella, and with an intentional gusto intended to blow the roof off. But there are elements to Sacred Harp singing that aren’t the same. Some tunes are different, we never arranged in a square, and I’ve never heard a singing group start a song by running it through first with just the names of the notes.

Still, our 4-part harmony was something to be a part of, even if some in the congregation sang off-key at the top of their lungs.
posted by darkstar at 8:18 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


I believe the note redundancy system makes a great deal of intuitive sense to the ear. Fa always denotes a note whose lower neighbor is a half step away. Both instances of Sol are a whole step above the corresponding Fa, and similarly for La.

No matter where in the scale you are, if you see the notes "La-Sol-Fa", you know to sing two descending whole steps. Fewer syllables to remember than seven-note solfege, and still much of the structural benefit- a lot like solmization in medieval music.
posted by YoloMortemPeccatoris at 8:53 PM on January 11 [4 favorites]


Nearly everyone I know who sings Sacred Harp is Jewish. Which is partly just a reflection of my friend group. But still, fun fact. Not sure how I myself haven't been roped into it yet, considering I'm into folk and Americana.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 8:54 PM on January 11


That article may concentrate on Southern geography, but there are many Sacred Harp singers in northern New England, meeting regularly in places like Brattleboro and Greenville and Lenox. Alerted by a friend who sings, I stopped by the Western Massachusetts regional convention in Northampton a few years ago, held in the room pictured here. Singers take turns leading the group; if that briefly left their chair empty near the center I would slip into the square to take photographs, surrounded by dozens of people raising their voices at full strength. Which was a unique experience indeed and, as grimjeer says, LOUD.

This year’s convention will be held in Holyoke the second weekend in March, if people in that area want to check it out.
posted by LeLiLo at 9:05 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


Does this mean that the sacred harp singers of Metafilter are MiFates?

re: modulation (thelonius / Smearcase): It doesn't modulate. It really doesn't (unless I'm forgetting about some anthems where the key just ups and changes, but then you just sing according to the new key).

There are a few V/Vs and I think one V/vi (351, which also has a V/V) and one V/IV (454). Some singers will even avoid singing the chromatic note even if it is written in the part, and will choose another note in the chord. My music theory PhD candidate friend who occasionally sings sacred harp says he has never seen this type of variation-in-performance elsewhere.

I, however, LOVE the modulatory feeling and will sing, in my small voice, the chromatic note as loudly as I can.

Also minor key songs are sung in Dorian, and referred to as singing the 'raised sixth.'

(if anyone is in Seattle the third Sunday of February and Saturday before, come sing, and if you live here / near, we sing weekly!)
posted by batter_my_heart at 9:14 PM on January 11 [6 favorites]


I love shape note singing, and I’ve been meaning to go to the local sacred harp group for years, but I don’t want to be the odd stranger in the group. I still just love the chord progressions and harmonies. Very unique and fascinating.

My mom has in her possession a book of hymns similar to sacred harp, but in a slightly different (very yankee) tradition. It’s at least 150 years old.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:26 AM on January 12


The great American composer Alice Parker has done a number of choral arrangements (primarily for Robert Shaw and his Atlanta Symphony Chorus) of shape note tunes in which she tries to keep the spirit of the original while creating more of an anthem. A couple of excellent performances:
Hark I Hear the Harps Eternal (stay for the stomping at the end!)
I Will Arise and Go To Jesus (conducted by Tom Trenney, who is always worth watching for when looking for good choral stuff)
posted by hydropsyche at 5:29 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]



For those that didn't follow both links, while "Deep in the antebellum bowels of Southern history, there emerged a style of gospel music" has a nice ring to it, as the second link explains Sacred Harp originated in the singing schools of the northeast. True, they have been preserved in the south, but they didn't originate as antebellum southern anything.


this is accurate, kind, and restrained. the first link is incorrect, and not by accident. there are still people today who will claim that all genuinely American culture is Southern culture, it is a powerful national myth that speaks to people across racial and political, and -- most bizarrely -- regional lines, and telling lies about where things came and who invented them from is how so many people come to sincerely believe in it

a long time back, southerners got very into this style and tradition of singing, and have held onto it. but they did not invent it. that has to be enough, because that is the extent of what is true. that is important.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:27 AM on January 12 [7 favorites]


I just Googled Sacred Harp in Chicago, because I miss communal singing so much and this post really spoke to me. It turns out that there's a workshop for beginners happening today, a 20 minute bus ride away from my house, starting in two hours. Soooo, I guess my day just went in an unexpected direction.
posted by merriment at 8:42 AM on January 12 [20 favorites]


Oh hey, Hydropsyche, we did a Robert Shaw arrangement of “I Will Arise” too. Which sounded a bit like that one, except that we sang it faster, almost March tempo. Whether that was a feature of the arrangement of of teenagers being unable to slow down, I can’t say.
posted by thivaia at 9:01 AM on January 12


shapes that haunt the dusk: "I love shape note singing, and I’ve been meaning to go to the local sacred harp group for years, but I don’t want to be the odd stranger in the group."

You totally won't! Shape note singers are really friendly and welcoming. You might also want to start by going to a convention or all-day singing (it's completely unclear in the linked article, but conventions and all-days are big, once-a-year events that go on for 1-2 days vs. the regular singings that are just weekly get-togethers) because they often start with or include a singing school for new singers, but just showing up at a random singing is highly encouraged.
posted by capricorn at 12:47 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


And yay, merriment, have fun singing in Chicago! That's where I got started singing and it was so great. I love the scene there.
posted by capricorn at 12:49 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Still, our 4-part harmony was something to be a part of, even if some in the congregation sang off-key at the top of their lungs.

That was like the Baptist church I went to as a child. It was expected that anyone who could sing harmony, would, and no shrinking violets!

In addition to what others have said about the relevant music theory, a lot of the tunes come from a pentatonic (five-note) scale tradition, so there tend to be fewer half-steps in general.

Anonymous 4 did an album called American Angels, that was mostly shape-note songs sung in a "pretty" style. Unfortunately, the only tracks I can find online are the non-shape-note ones (mostly revival songs).
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:41 PM on January 12




The Band: “Daniel and the Sacred Harp
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:26 PM on January 12


Y'all, it was such fun! A couple of super friendly folks took me under their wing right away (for those worried about being the stranger in the group--don't) and explained the basics and sat me between them in the front row of the alto section. After a disorienting few minutes of figuring out how to follow the lyrics while keeping an eye on the notes as well, I was belting it out in no time.

To my delight, someone even called 146 Hallelujah, which, thanks to the video that thivaia posted, was the song that actually got me off the couch and out the door to try it myself on the day. Heartfelt thanks to all of the Mefite Sacred Harp singers who introduced me to this joyful noise!
posted by merriment at 8:36 PM on January 13 [18 favorites]


I've gotten completely hooked on listening to various Sacred Harp sings on YouTube, and damn I would enjoy doing that.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 4:09 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


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