How I learned to love Sacred Harp
What is sacred harp music?
As a historian, I want to ramble on about how Sacred Harp is a singing style from the Deep South. I want to muse about how Sacred Harp influenced bluegrass, gospel, blues, and rock and roll. I want to explore how a Christian singing tradition became a secular one—today, atheists, Baptists, conservatives, and the LGBT* community can all come together to sing. I want to talk about shape notes, the four parts and the square around which the singers are situated. I want to share how refreshing this format of participatory music can be, how there’s no audience at a Sacred Harp convention, just singers. The truth is I really don’t know the best way to talk about Sacred Harp music. I know it’s a big part of my life. I know that it is a collective, participatory experience, one that is built by the tremendous individuals who form its community.
My first experience with Sacred Harp music wasn’t profound. During a brief stint living in Toronto, the host of the Raconteurs storytelling night, Laura Louise, told me how she’d joined a small Sacred Harp group with some folks living on Manning Street. I was curious what the heck she was up to, so she showed me.
She lent me a few recordings. It was abrasive, chaotic, and they didn’t sound very good (it’s actually a common joke between singers not to listen to Sacred Harp before going to a singing—it has a certain non-recordability), but it was powerful.
My curiosity was held hostage and Sacred Harp was on my radar. I began to listen to more of it, learning tunes just by singing along to songs on the Internet and digging into other roots music along the way.
When I returned to Vancouver, I put an advertisement on Craigslist for musicians for my band. I listed the influences I was looking for: Nick Cave, Swans, and well, Sacred Harp music.
I didn’t receive too many responses, but I received one that marked a pivotal moment in my Sacred Harp journey. Her name was Caroline, and she said, “I’m not sure about what you might need for your band but you like Sacred Harp music?!! We sing sacred Harp music!” Caroline had been hosting a singing night at her place for several years, trying to keep a shape note candle lit in the rainy city, all by herself. There were one or two regulars, both American transplants to Vancouver.
Reading notes for the first time
The next week I found myself at Caroline’s, ready to sing from the book for the first time, without the assistance of a pre-recording. I was way out of my depth. I’ve been a musician since my teens, but one of those slacker musicians—I never learned to read music, I don’t know what the heck the notes are, nor measures or keys.
I still don’t really know how to read music, but in my time with the Sacred Harp community, I’ve somehow learned to read shape notes, a system of notation that utilizes a square, oval, triangle and diamond—each shape signifies la, so, fa, and mi—it’s an easier way to keep track of where you are on the scale.
My first night at Caroline’s was a lot of fun. It may have even sounded good for a note or two. Plus, I really liked these people: they were into the same music, micro-brewed beer, gardening, fantasy novels. Y’know, all the good stuff. At the end of the night Caroline gave me my very own Sacred Harp: the Denson (red book), the most popular version of the songbook. There are other Sacred Harp and shape note books, including the Sacred Harp Cooper book (blue), as well as the Shenandoah and Christian Harmony. Each has a different sound, feel, and sometimes different shapes. I took my Denson home on the bus, beaming like a kid running back from the candy store.
Using the book as my guide, I started practicing at my home and wailing away at those shapes. In the following months, several friends in my building approached me several times: “What is that you’re doing in your suite? Scottish chants? Tibetan droning? Sorcerous incantations? ARE YOU OKAY?” I just told them told them, matter-of-factly, “I’m singing Sacred Harp music!” They didn’t share my enthusiasm.
That’s because of how it sounds. It’s loud. Raw. Angular. Droning. Nasal. Messy. Abrasive. Haunting. Soulful. Sometimes it can sound a bit out of tune. Sometimes it sounds like shouting, because you are literally shouting.
But when you hit those big chords, when the four harmonies come together, I really don’t think of anything in the world that sounds better.
Sacred Harp didn’t catch on in Vancouver like wildfire, which is sort of what I thought would happen. Attendance at Caroline’s weekly home sings was small. We tried to advertise a bit on Craigslist or other sites, but not a lot of people responded. Three of us tried to play (sing) at a show at Lana Lou’s, but the crowd essentially talked over us the entire time. Caroline kept a singing scheduled every second Thursday, even if sometimes she was the only one singing.
At long last, community!
This year, things really started picking up. More people started showing up at Caroline’s. We were even singing all four parts! With the influence of enthusiastic new members—Kevin, Tova, Jake, Abi, Rick, Catherine, Elizabeth, and Tina—the time had come to take it to the next level and we made the move to our current space, at Cavalry Baptist Church, off Commercial Drive. To make a landmark year even more exciting, we hosted our first Sacred Harp convention, and sang in public at Yule Duel.
You really haven’t heard Sacred Harp singing until you have gone to a convention. I had my first true Sacred Harp experience in Seattle, 2014, at the annual Pacific Northwest Sacred Harp Convention.
A bunch of us from the group were all packed in a van, like a plucky middle-aged Christian youth group, stuck at the border trying to explain to the unimpressed border guards that we weren’t a “real choir” and we weren’t going to sing for money.
Once we got there, I heard a wall of sound shaking the building. I sat on the back benches of the tenor section, the loud vibrations shaking my chair, my own voice reverberating through my lungs. It was a physical experience.
The physical experience of inhabiting a space literally shaking with the sound of hundreds of people singing is its own transcendental experience. On top of that, a standard Sacred Harp gathering involves singing for eight hours straight. For one hour mid-day, we break for lunch on the grounds. It’s a southern-influenced communal potluck with all the fixings: coleslaw, brisket, and as many types of pulled pork as I could imagine (in between songs, one singer made an announcement that there were too many crockpots and that they were overloading the breaker). Eating and singing together all day long wasn’t something I’ve experienced before. To me, it felt like this is what people should be doing together.
I led my first song at the convention. Every singer gets called to lead one of the more than 500 songs in the book, stands in the centre of the square, and leads the tempo by moving their arm to keep time. I chose a song that seemd fitting, “Long Sought Home.” I had played in a band in front of people before, but that is not the same as singing with 200 people. It was one of the most nerve-wracking and exhilarating experiences of my life. There is something about singing loudly about death together, with people from all walks of life, that orbits the profound.
Eating together, singing together—Sacred Harp becomes a place in which an intimate ritual together is performed together. We were proud to host our own convention in Vancouver this year. And were so happy to see around 50 people come up from the U.S. to support and to allow us to host them.
The movement builds
Since that weekend in Seattle at the Sacred Harp convention, I’ve gotten a glimpse into the Sacred Harp diaspora. People are linked to each other across the continent. They come together on weekends in different cities.
You’ll see the same people in Chicago, Atlanta, Boston and Portland. It’s become a real obsession for some. One of our own singers, Kevin, is at just about every singing—whether it’s in Pittsburgh, Hoboken or Birmingham.
The community is a cornerstone of why people love singing Sacred Harp so much. From old-school southern Baptists to transgendered atheists, all have found a home here and have built a place of belonging. This place lives in the pages of the Sacred Harp, but also in the plane tickets purchased, the miles driven and the homes opened up to complete strangers.
The strength of the community is why Sacred Harp music has stayed around, and that’s why I think it’s becoming popular again. People want something to connect to, something authentic. There is something transcendental about taking part in a ritual that generations of people before have done in the same way, about enacting a communal memory, becoming a part of a longer narrative. Time becomes physical and memory becomes voice.
You become a part of living history.
Sacred Harp’s power lies in this and it incorporates each and every individual voice. There is no leader, no one gets paid, everyone is an equal member, and people come from all walks of life. Plus, everyone gets to lead a song, no matter their skill level. It’s the biggest band in the world, and we are all a part of it.
There is a lot more I can say about Sacred Harp and about the singers from Portland, Boulder, Seattle, Grand Forks, Ontario, Germany and Ireland that have become my dear friends, because it’s not just about singing; it’s about the individuals singing it. If you want to know more about it, well, come and sing with us. We’ll be there, singing away and enjoying each other’s company, every Thursday night.
You’re welcome to join weekly Sacred Harp singing sessions with the author and his friends at the Grandview Calvary Baptist Church (1803 E. 1st Ave., one block east of Commercial) from 7-9pm Thursdays. Enter on Salsbury through the door marked “office/deliveries.” Find the group in Room 8.