March 6, 2008

Sacred Harp

Category: Music :: Permalink

My first introduction to what is known as “sacred harp” or “shape note singing” was a few years back, when I picked up a CD called Goostly Psalmes, which Canon Press sold, and then eventually tracked down the companion CD of psalm and hymn tunes by William Billings, A Land of Pure Delight.  Some of these tunes I learned to sing when I visited Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, and some of them are included in the Cantus Christi hymnal.

At the time, I suppose I thought that this hymnal was resurrecting these tunes and this style of singing, as it was doing for the Becker Psalter of Heinrich Schutz.  It turns out that I was wrong.

Today, on Jeffrey Overstreet’s Looking Closer blog, I came across a review of a recent documentary on shape note singing.  What’s interesting is that this musical style, which goes back to the earliest years of the United States and beyond that to Great Britain, is not dead nor has it been preserved only by academic musicologists.  It’s still alive and kicking in many churches, particularly in the southern states.

The documentary is entitled Awake, My Soul, and here is the review that alerted me to it.  The documentary has its own webpage, as well, where you can hear some of the music.  The first seven minutes of the documentary are online here.

My wife commented that there was something tribal about this singing.  Only later did I discover on the documentary’s website a reference to this as a “Lost Tonal Tribe.”  Exactly right.  There is something tribal about this sort of vigorous singing together, and that’s a good thing.

In Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future, James Jordan talks about how the church functions as a tribe, and part of what cements the tribe together is vigorous communal singing.  History progresses through phases as tribes give way to kingdoms and kingdoms to empires, which then get so large that people begin to form new tribes within the empire to which they give their chief allegience.  At such a time as this, the tribal aspects of the church, including communal singing,   are exactly what the world needs.

I repeat the word “vigorous” here for a reason.  Dirgelike singing doesn’t change the world.  At least, not for the better.  It doesn’t draw people either.  Our Reformed forefathers sang the psalms, but they didn’t intone them slowly as if they were marching reluctantly to their funerals.  They sang them with vigor and strength, as soldiers marching to war.

The quotation on the documentary website from Joe Dempsey at the Washington City Paper puts it well: “Get enough people singing weird harmonies at the top of their voices and you start feeling a little sorry for the devil.”

Give this shape note singing a listen and maybe even pick up the documentary.  This may not be exactly (and certainly not only) what we ought to be doing ourselves.  I don’t believe, for instance, that every song ought to be sung in four-part harmony or that everyone in the church ought to be able to sing in four-part harmony.  But this documentary gives us an opportunity to watch and to learn from a community, a living tradition, that gets some things right.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:18 pm | Discuss (0)

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