For more than twenty years now I have been obsessed with Sacred Harp singing. Comparing who I am (politically liberal, gay ex-Catholic agnostic scientist who grew up in the city) and the content and traditional practitioners of the music in The Sacred Harp (Primitive Baptist hymns sung by very conservative rural southern true believers), you would think this is something less than a perfect fit. But in fact I find I can’t live without it.
To find out why, follow me over the jump…
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So what is Sacred Harp singing? It is a practice that dates back to colonial times, and has continued more or less in its original form up to the present day in the rural South. Some of the songs are among the oldest music written by English-speaking people in America. Singers would gather to sing music in three or four parts. Each of the parts sits on one side of a square, facing each other, and forming a hollow square in the center. Anyone who wants to can lead a song. Each leader leads by beating time while standing at the center of the hollow square.
Sacred Harp singing got its name from the book we sing out of: The Sacred Harp. This book has been in continuous publication since 1844, through several revisions. It is also called shape note hymn singing because the musical notation gives the note heads different shapes according to the degree of the note on the scale. The shape note system used here consists of four shapes, each corresponding to one of the solfage syllables. Below is an example of the scale. The right triangle stands for "fa," the oval for "sol," the square for "la," and the diamond for "mi."
[I hear you ask “There are seven distinct tones on the Western musical scale, and Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music" used a system with seven note names (do-re-mi, etc). Why does the system in The Sacred Harp have only four note names, three of them repeated?” There is a long and complicated answer to that question involving some fairly deep music theory upon which I have only the most tenuous of holds. More importantly, this issue is beside the point of this diary, so I will not answer you here. Sorry.]
For an example of music in shape note notation, see “New Briatain” below (more commonly known by the name “Amazing Grace”).
[Without trying too hard, I have found one error in this piece; the final note of the treble part should be a la (square) rather than a fa (triangle). There may be other errors as well. Both this and the image of the scale were swiped from Wikipedia.]
The four parts of the song are Treble (top line), alto (second line), tenor or lead (third line) and bass (bottom line). Note that there is no soprano part per se. Both men and women are welcome to sing either the tenor or the treble parts. Unlike most typical choral music, the melody of the song is in the tenor (3rd) line. Further, all of the parts are interesting to sing, which is also different from most choral music. Singers sing the solfage the first time through (fa-sol-la, etc), then the actual words.
The words to these songs are usually hymns or metrical psalm interpretations which have been around since the 18th Century. Isaac Watts, William Maria Cowper, and Charles Wesley are among the most popular sources for these poems. Because of the age of this poetry, some of it seems flowery to modern ears, There are very few songs in the book that are not religious, and most of the religious ones have rather depressing things to say about, well, death. For example:
Young people all attention give,
And hear what I do say,
I want your souls with Christ to live,
in everlasting day.
Remember you are hastening on,
To Death’s dark gloomy shade.
Your joys on Earth will soon be gone,
Your flesh in dust be laid.
And am I born to die,
To lay this body down,
And must my spirit trembling fly,
Into a world unknown?
So all of this may seem to make for an odd combination of music and lyrics. Why would a modern person enjoy singing this music to the point of traveling hundreds of miles or more to be able to sing it for one or two full days, sometimes with people he or she barely knows? Partly because you get to blast out your part at high volume, and hear your voice blend with those of other parts to make remarkable harmonies. (Did I mention that we sing loud?) But even more than that is the culture of Sacred Harp singing. It’s one of complete democracy. Any and all people are welcome to join in and participate. Anyone who wants to lead can take a turn. Each of the parts is as important as the others. And there is no choir director telling you to back off on the volume! There is an interaction that exists between the leader and the singers, and among the singers, that is indescribable. You may not know the people you sing with at the beginning, but they will be your friends before you part.
Despite the fact that the songs are religious in nature, religion is never discussed among singers. Neither is politics. The singing is a social practice, and while it is regarded as worship by many singers, even they realize that it isn’t a church service. Even traditional singers from the South are not all the same Christian denomination, and a conversation about religious doctrine could result in an argument. The prayers offered are all pretty generic, such that only Richard Dawkins would be offended. So even a heathen such as myself can attend a Southern singing without getting into trouble. Yes, they know I'm gay (some of them, anyway), and that does not matter. Singers respect each other's differences.
As a result, it is possible for people of all religious and political stripes to come together in one place and to enjoy each others’ company. I see this practice as one way in which red and blue Americans can get to know each other as human beings, rather than as the awful other that is in the process of destroying our nation. The battle lines can be redrawn on another day. Today we sing together as members of a single community.
I also should mention that when my mother passed away three years ago, I realized that the Sacred Harp had given me the language I needed to be able to face her death and address it with both realism and dignity.
Following are some fairly good field recordings from Southern singings. In the first one, a little old white lady rocks the house (as it were):
Here is another example. Black and white still don’t mix very much socially in the South, but welcoming all who come to sing does apply across the line of race:
Finally, for a little contrast, here is one of the many songs in the book in a minor key, being led (sort of) by a couple of children:
In conclusion, I don’t know if I have properly explained how I can feel the way I do about this music, and it may ultimately be impossible to explain. Not very many people respond this way to Sacred Harp singing—indeed, they’re inclined to run away rather than stay and sing! But I hear it and recognize in it spiritual uplift and a broad and loving community.
For more information about Sacred Harp singing, visit these websites:
Now on to the comments!
The day started with hilarity as DemFromCT's Abbreviated Pundit Roundup was initially posted without any content. From the first comment by American Zapatista ("The pundits didn't say anything today?") through JaxDem's "This is the dumbed down teabagger version" and "This is an entire column by Bill Kristol ... summarizing everything he's ever gotten right in his life" by Philly Boy until the plaintive mewling from SciMathGuy when the REAL punditry was posted around 7:48am EDT ("Awww. I liked the diet version. :-)") it was one of the best mockeries of punditry I have seen. Worth a read.
blue aardvark sets off a stimulating(?) thread with this hilarious comment in Something the Dog Said's diary Conservatives Sad Obsession With Sex They Are Not Having.
From jlms qkw:
On being human and having babies: this comment by Kimball Cross, and the two replies by Gravedugger and croyal.
From Angie in WA State:
Nominating this comment by leftyboy666 from bink's diary Tired of Slutty Unemployed Women and Their Divorces, for identifying the sin that dare not speak it's name. Even for a pun, this is a good one.
Greg in TN really nails it with this comment in TomP's diary Republicans are not on Your Side. The question of
the day the week the yearmy lifetime is: What is the only time that Republicans want Government to function properly? For the answer, go read Greg's comment.
Pam from Calif recounts A Day in the Life of Joe Republican.
In SantaFeMarie's diary "I am not a parasite" - funniest GOP fail of the day., there were a number of excellent comments on how rural America has been changed thanks to the federal government.
grannyhelen started an amazing thread by recalling land grants and WPA employment, in which semiot mentions the federal loans for rural electrification, blue aardvark explains pre-electricity sad irons, which Ellid picks up on, and others in the thread as well. I was also taken with raster44's mother always keeping wet hand towels in the Fridge, and leftykook's memories of mom dealing with step-dad's marine uniforms every day with the help of Exie. There's much more in this thread; keep reading.
From your humble diarist:
mem from somerville edifies us with the haiku written by the official Wimbledon poet on the subject of the record-smashing tennis match between Nicolas Mahut and John Isner.
Top Mojo (cskendrick/sardonyx-style) excluding search-identifiable tip jars, first diary comments, Cheers and Jeers, and various pooties:
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2) When rural electrification came in - by semiot — 185
3) To quote our own dear noweasels by Dallasdoc — 172
4) Does this farmer have a problem by beltane — 170
5) He was incredibly proud of this by Ellid — 167
6) Keep your filthy hands off my gubmint money! by MKSinSA — 139
7) Sad irons by blue aardvark — 134
8) This is just typical. by voracious — 123
9) My grandmother used one of those, and my by Foxwizard — 114
10) I reserve the right to envy those by blue aardvark — 105
11) Good diary. by TheBlaz — 100
12) Parasite David Jungerman by Scarce — 92
13) 72 and self-employed by croyal — 89
14) So, he's paid more than by mmacdDE — 88
15) Of course crop subsidies are different by croyal — 83
16) Please have a wonderful day, everyone by paradox — 79
17) New hangout by gjohnsit — 75
18) I Think I'll Be Okay by bink — 73
19) If you're looking down... by Ken in MN — 73
20) McChrystal is a Liberal who hates Fox news by Kitty — 71
21) Republican Californication of America by FishOutofWater — 68
22) Your work is absolutely vital to this community by Ajax the Greater — 68
23) One thing you'll never see me do by Fishgrease — 67
24) GOP: Never should've let women vote. by Benintn — 67
25) Firing McChrystal was not 'kicking ass.' by Geekesque — 66
26) superb by bol — 64
27) You know the way you know ROCKMAN is real? by M W LeesGrossmann — 61
28) Obama consoles McChrystal by Kitty — 61
29) BULLSHIT! Poor people HAVE NO WEALTH! by MinistryOfTruth — 60
30) Caveat: Not all rich people serve their wealth. by Benintn — 59
31) Let's see... by kevin k — 59
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3) Tip Jar by blackwaterdog — 369
4) It's Obvious That a Great Wrong Was Committed by bink — 358
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6) Vent hole by MinistryOfTruth — 310
7) Tip Jar by TomP — 283
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9) Tipd, recd, hilarious! by grannyhelen — 226
10) Tip Jar by Elaine Marshall — 209
11) It's time to draw a line in the sand, by RLMiller — 199
12) When rural electrification came in - by semiot — 185
13) To quote our own dear noweasels by Dallasdoc — 172
14) Does this farmer have a problem by beltane — 170
15) He was incredibly proud of this by Ellid — 167
16) Tip Jar by Forrest Brown — 158
17) Keep your filthy hands off my gubmint money! by MKSinSA — 139
18) Tip Jar by magic3400 — 136
19) Sad irons by blue aardvark — 134
20) This is just typical. by voracious — 123
21) My grandmother used one of those, and my by Foxwizard — 114
22) I reserve the right to envy those by blue aardvark — 105
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