One of the earliest forms of American folk music speaks to the power of people singing together in community. As Steven Sabol says in his article, “Sacred Harp Singing: History & Tradition” — “At Sacred Harp singings and conventions, participants sing the powerful and harmonious American music from The Sacred Harp, the most enduring of the shape-note tunebooks popular in 19th-century rural America. This tunebook, in its several editions, has given its name to a tradition of unaccompanied community singing and fellowship surviving to the present day.”
The Sacred Harp was first published in 1844, a collection of true “folk” music influenced primarily by tunes from the British Isles. The hymn tunes, psalm tunes, anthems, and fuguing tunes it contained, written by such composers as William Billings, were used to sing mostly sacred texts by English hymn writers such as Watts, Wesley, and Newton. Later editions added tunes by southern composers. It was one of several early “frontier” songbooks that included: Kentucky Harmony (1816), Missouri Harmony (1820, used by Abraham Lincoln), and Southern Harmony (1835).
These songbooks grew out of the singing school tradition in early America and not from church worship settings. The pieces were known by their tune names and not their first lines, and texts might be set to several different tunes. The music is structured so that it gives the impression of simultaneous melodies, often sung in a stark and lively manner. The tunes are written using “shaped notes” — shapes that represent the interval of the note from the key or tonic pitch. This allowed untrained singers to sight read more easily, enabling many Americans to learn to sing written music.
After the Civil War, when other types of music began to gain more prominence, Sabol tells us that “singing from The Sacred Harp continued to be popular in the rural South, where there evolved a tradition of all-day singings and 2- or 3-day conventions of “Fasola” music in simple one-room churches, with dinner on the grounds, the honoring of deceased relatives and friends in Memorial Lessons, and traditional Southern hospitality and fellowship. These singings became social rituals in which the pristine elements of music, spirituality, fellowship, and food were distilled away from trappings and distractions.”
This practice is being maintained in many places throughout the U.S. to this day, and HERE is a list of Sacred Harp singings in 2012. Warren Steel describes what happens on one of these occasions:
An all-day Sacred Harp singing is a day devoted to music and fellowship. All-day singings are usually held in small rural churches, or in schoolhouses, courtrooms, or community centers. They usually take place on the same weekend every year, say, the Fourth Sunday in May, and often mark the annual homecoming for a local church or community, when local natives return from far and near to decorate the graves in the nearby cemetery, visit with friends, and enjoy the music that sustained their parents and grandparents. Some annual singings and conventions extend to two or even three days of singing, and may meet in various locations from year to year.
Typically, an all-day singing begins between 9:30 and 10:00 AM. When the singers have seated themselves by singing part (tenor, bass, treble and alto), the singing begins with an opening song, a prayer, and a brief organizational meeting. Each individual is invited to take a turn leading a lesson, that is, standing in the center of the “class,” choosing one or more songs by page number, sounding the opening pitch (or receiving the key from an experienced singer nearby), and leading the song by beating time with a simple vertical motion of the hand, first with the singing syllables (fa, sol, la, and mi), and then with the words. The officers may call a brief recess in the morning or afternoon, but the only extended break comes at noon, when everyone proceeds to outdoor tables or a fellowship hall for an abundant dinner on the grounds provided by local families.
After an hour, or when the dinner is cleared, the singers return to the main building to continue the rotation of leaders. There may be a brief “memorial lesson” in honor of singers or community members who have died in the past year; indeed some annual singings are themselves memorials to beloved singers and family members. Singings usually end between 2:30 and 4:00, depending on the number of leaders. After announcements of upcoming singings, there is a closing song and a prayer of dismissal.
The following is a trailer for Awake My Soul, by filmmakers Matt and Erica Hinton, a feature documentary that explores the history, music, and traditions of Sacred Harp singing. It will give you a taste of a few of the sights and sounds of this wonderful music that evokes a time when communities sang together in meaningful times of recreation and fellowship.