The wooden room resounded with sound as a half-hundred people stomped their feet and industriously pumped their arms to accompany their singing.
We sang from “The Sacred Harp,” a hymnal first published in 1844, with lyrics pining for the Promised Land and glory beyond. Back then, church singing was usually unaccompanied, nothing but voices lifted in prayer, lament, or gratitude. To sing Sacred Harp style, people sit by sections, in a square, with the leader in the center.
Sacred Harp singing was very popular around the time of the Civil War, especially in the south, but it also had a good hold here in the Shenandoah region. Some folks are working to reclaim the tradition, with all-day sings.
Here are a few things I love about Sacred Harp singing:
1) many lyrics are familiar, set to unfamiliar music, so it’s a new way to experience an old hymn
2) many lyrics address topics that we tend to overlook — the blessing of adversity, our need for mercy, or seldom-preached-about biblical stories like Absalom’s death
3) over everything hangs the shadow of the cold cold grave, with the hope of glory just beyond
4) singing requires total concentration because the notes move fast and the type is a bit small
5) singing parts, in harmony, sometimes all together, but often in a sort of racing fugue style that is absolutely addictive
6) after you figure out which side of the square you belong on, you can switch around and sing a different part, especially if you always wanted to be something you’re not
7) it’s a full body experience if you pump your arm
8) it embraces imperfection — literally anyone can sing — no one will ever look at you funny
9) the pitch of each song is calibrated to the group. If there are a lot of folks that can hit the high notes, they’ll pitch it higher than if the room is full of altos and basses
10) it uses a shared leadership model — anyone can lead a song of their own choosing
11) the shared leadership is not random, but carefully orchestrated so that everyone gets a chance and time isn’t wasted — yes, it’s decent and in order
12) it remind you of your mortality — both in the lyric you’re singing — and the fact that you might need to bum a cough drop when your voice gives out — and make a mental note that yes, you really DO need to get your eyes checked
In a world where singing has become primarily entertainment — American Idol, anyone? — Sacred Har singing reminds us that singing is a way to be together with others, to express emotion, to experience a new level of devotion, and to give your lungs a workout.
If you haven’t been Sacred Harp singing, I urge you to Google around and find something in your area. It’s really worth the effort to experience this piece of history. Some of the groups are called “Fa-So-La” or “Shape Note Singing.” It’s all similar, check it out on Wikipedia.