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Song #186 (Sherburne) from The Sacred Harp, performed by the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers
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Sacred Harp singing is a tradition of sacred choral music that took root in the Southern region of the United States. It is part of the larger tradition of shape note music. Sacred Harp music is performed a capella (voice only, without instruments) and originated as Protestant Christian music. The songs sung are primarily from the book The Sacred Harp.
The name of the tradition comes from the title of the shape note book from which the music is sung, The Sacred Harp. This book exists today in various editions, discussed below. Many now singing Sacred Harp music assume that the harp referred to in the title is the voice, because the music is sung a cappella. But those who have grown up in a cappella churches are aware that the name Sacred Harp refers to two passages in the Bible by the apostle Paul, commanding the Ephesians and the Colossians to sing "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in the heart unto the Lord" (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). The original Greek text of these two passages reads: "singing and plucking the strings of the heart," thus using the harp as a metaphor for the heart. A cappella churches have solidified their a cappella traditions by insisting that the heart is the only instrumental accompaniment permitted by God for the church to worship with.
"Shape note" music means that the notes are printed in special shapes that help the reader fluently identify them on the musical scale. There are two prevalent systems, one using four shapes, and one using seven. In the four-shape system, each of the four shapes is connected to a particular syllable: fa, sol, la, and mi; and these syllables are employed in singing the notes, just as in the more familiar system that uses do, re, mi, etc. (see solfege). The system used in the Sacred Harp is able to cover the full musical scale because each syllable-shape combination other than mi is assigned to two distinct notes of the scale. For example, the C major scale would be notated and sung as follows:
As can be seen, the shape for fa is a triangle, sol an oval, la a rectangle, and mi a diamond.
In Sacred Harp singing, pitch is not absolute. The shapes and notes designate degrees of the scale, not particular pitches. Thus for a song in the key of C, fa designates C and F; for a song in G, fa designates G and C, and so on; hence it is called a moveable "do" system.
When Sacred Harp singers begin a song, they normally start by singing it with the appropriate syllable for each pitch, using the shapes to guide them. For those in the group not yet familiar with the song, the shapes help with the task of sight reading. The process of reading through the song with the shapes also helps fix the notes in memory. Once the shapes have been sung, the group then sings the verses of the song with their printed words.
Sacred Harp groups always sing a cappella, that is to say, without accompanying instruments. The singers arrange themselves in a hollow square, with rows of chairs or pews on each side assigned to each of the four parts: treble, alto, tenor, and bass. The treble and tenor sections are usually mixed, with men and women singing the notes an octave apart.
There is no single leader or conductor; rather, the participants take turns in leading. The leader for a particular round selects a song from the book, and "calls" it by its page number. Leading is done in an open-palm style, standing in the middle of the square facing the tenors (see: Leading Sacred Harp music).
The pitch at which the music is sung is relative; there is no instrument to give the singers a starting point. The leader, or else some particular singer assigned to the task, finds a good pitch with which to begin and intones it to the group (see: Pitching Sacred Harp music). The singers reply with the opening notes of their own parts, and then the song begins immediately.
The music is usually sung not literally as it is printed in the book, but with certain deviations established by custom; see Performance practice of Sacred Harp music.
As the name implies, Sacred Harp music is sacred music and originated as Protestant Christian music. Many of the songs in the book are hymns that use words, meters, and stanzaic forms familiar from elsewhere in Protestant hymnody. However, Sacred Harp songs are quite different from "mainstream" Protestant hymns in their musical style: they are often polyphonic in texture, and the harmony tends to deemphasize the interval of the third in favor of fourths and fifths. In their melodies, the songs often use the pentatonic scale or similar "gapped" (fewer than seven-note) scales.
In their musical form, Sacred Harp songs fall into three basic types. Many are ordinary hymn tunes, mostly composed in four-bar phrases and sung in multiple verses. Fuging tunes contain a prominent passage about 1/3 of the way through in which each of the four choral parts enters in succession, in a way resembling a fugue. Anthems are longer songs, less regular in form, that are sung through just once rather than in multiple verses.
Sacred Harp singing normally occurs not in church services, but in special gatherings or "singings" arranged for the purpose. Singings can be local, regional, statewide, or national. Small singings are often held in homes, with perhaps only a dozen singers. Large singings have been known to have more than a thousand participants. The more ambitious singings include an ample potluck dinner in the middle of the day, traditionally called "dinner on the grounds."
Some of the largest and oldest annual singings are called "conventions". The oldest Sacred Harp convention was the Southern Musical Convention, organized in Upson County, Georgia in 1845. The two oldest surviving Sacred Harp singing conventions are the Chattahoochee Musical Convention (organized in Coweta County, Georgia in 1852), and the East Texas Sacred Harp Convention (organized as the East Texas Musical Convention in 1855).
Sacred Harp singers view their tradition as a participatory one, not a passive one. Those who gather for a singing sing for themselves and for each other, and not for an audience. This can be seen in several aspects of the tradition.
First, the seating arrangement (four parts in a square, facing each other) is clearly intended for the singers, not for external listeners. Non-singers are always welcome to attend a singing, but typically they sit among the singers in the back rows of the tenor section, rather than in any particular designated audience location.
The leader, being equidistant from all sections, in principle hears the best sound. The often intense sonic experience of standing in the center of the square is considered one of the benefits of leading, and sometimes a guest will be invited as a courtesy to stand next to the leader during a song.
The music itself is also meant to be participatory. Most forms of choral composition place the melody on the top (treble) line, where it can be best heard by an audience, with the other parts written so as not to obscure the melody. In contrast, Sacred Harp composers have aimed to make each musical part singable and interesting in its own right, thus giving every singer in the group an absorbing task. For this reason, "bringing out the melody" is not a high priority in Sacred Harp composition, and indeed it is customary to assign the melody not to the trebles but to the tenors. Fuging tunes, in which each section gets its moment to shine, also illustrate the importance in Sacred Harp of maintaining the independence of each vocal part.
Marini (2003) traces the earliest roots of Sacred Harp to the "country parish music" of early 18th century England. This form of rural church music evolved a number of the distinctive traits that were passed on from tradition to tradition, until they ultimately became part of Sacred Harp singing. These traits included the assignment of the melody to the tenors, harmonic structure emphasizing fourths and fifth, and the distinction between the ordinary four-part hymn ("plain tune"), the anthem, and the fuging tune. Several composers of this school, including Joseph Stephenson and Aaron Williams, are represented in the 1991 Edition of The Sacred Harp. For further information on the English roots of Sacred Harp music, see West gallery music.
Around the mid 18th century, the forms and styles of English country parish music were introduced to America, notably in a new tunebook called Urania, published 1764 by the singing master James Lyon. This stimulus soon led to the development of a robust native school of composition, signaled by the 1770 publication of William Billings's The New England Psalm Singer, and then by a great number of new compositions by Billings and those who followed in his path. The work of these composers, sometimes called the "First New England School", forms a major part of the Sacred Harp to this day.
Billings and his followers worked as singing masters, who led singing schools. The purpose of these schools was to train young people in the correct singing of sacred music. This pedagogical movement flourished, and led ultimately to the invention of shape notes, which originated as way to making the teaching of singing easier. The first shape note tunebook appeared in 1801: The Easy Instructor by William Smith and William Little. At first, Smith and Little's shapes competed with a rival system, created by Andrew Law (1749-1821) in his The Musical Primer of 1803. Although this book came out two years later than Smith and Little's book, Law claimed earlier invention of shape notes. In his system, a square indicated fa, a circle sol, a triangle la and a diamond, mi. Law used the shaped notes without a musical staff. The Smith and Little shapes ultimately prevailed.
Shape notes became very popular, and during the first part of the nineteenth century, a whole series of shape note tunebooks appeared, many of which were widely distributed. As the population spread west and south, the tradition of shape note singing expanded geographically. Composition flourished, with the new music often drawing on the tradition of folk song for tunes and inspiration. Probably the most successful shape note book prior to The Sacred Harp was William Walker's Southern Harmony, published in 1835 and still in use today.
Even as they flourished and spread, shape notes and the kind of participatory music which they served came under attack. The critics were from the urban-based "better music" movement, spearheaded by Lowell Mason, which advocated a more "scientific" style of sacred music, more closely based on the harmonic styles of contemporaneous European music. The new style gradually prevailed. Shape notes and their music disappeared from the cities prior to the Civil War, and from the rural areas of the Northeast and Midwest in the following decades. However, they retained a haven in the rural South, which remained a fertile territory for the creation of new shapenote publications.
Sacred Harp singing came into being with the 1844 publication of Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King’s The Sacred Harp. It was this book, now distributed in several different versions, that came to be the shape note tradition with the largest number of participants.
B. F. White (1800-1879) was originally from Union County, South Carolina, but since 1842 had been living in Harris County, Georgia. He prepared The Sacred Harp in collaboration with a younger man, E. J. King, (ca. 1821–44), who was from Talbot County, Georgia. Together they compiled, transcribed, and composed tunes, and published a book of over 250 songs.
King died soon after the book was published, and White was left to guide its growth. He was responsible for organizing singing schools and conventions at which The Sacred Harp was used as the songbook. During his lifetime, the book became popular and would go through three revisions (1850, 1859, and 1869), all produced by committees consisting of White and several colleagues working under the auspices of the Southern Musical Convention. The first two new editions simply added appendices of new songs to the back of the book. The 1869 revision was more extensive, removing some of the less popular songs and adding new ones in their places. From the original 262 pages, the book was expanded by 1869 to 477. This edition was reprinted and continued in use for several decades.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Sacred Harp singing entered a period of conflict over the issue of traditionalism. The conflict ultimately split the community.
B. F. White had died in 1879 before completing a fourth revision of his book; thus the version that Sacred Harp participants were singing from was by the turn of the century over three decades old. During this time, the musical tastes of Sacred Harp's traditional adherents, the inhabitants of the rural South, had changed in important ways. Notably, gospel music - syncopated and chromatic, often with piano accompaniment - had become popular, along with a number of church hymns of the "mainstream" variety, such as "Rock of Ages." Seven-shape notation systems had appeared and won adherents away from the older four-shape system (see shape note for details). As time passed, Sacred Harp singers doubtless became aware that what they were singing had become quite distinct from contemporary tastes.
The natural path to take—and the one ultimately taken—would be to assert the archaic character of Sacred Harp as an outright virtue. In this view, Sacred Harp should be treasured as a time-tested musical tradition, standing above current trends of fashion. The difficulty with adopting traditionalism as a guiding doctrine was that different singers had different opinions about just what form the stable, traditionalized version of Sacred Harp would take.
The first move was made by W. M. Cooper, of Dothan, Alabama, a leading Sacred Harp teacher in his own region, but not part of the inner circle of B. F. White's old colleagues and descendants. In 1902 Cooper prepared a revision of The Sacred Harp that, while retaining most of the old songs, also added new tunes that reflected more contemporary music styles. Cooper made other changes, too:
The Cooper revision was a success, being widely adopted in many areas of the South, such as Florida, southern Alabama, and Texas, where it has continued as the predominant Sacred Harp book to this day. The "Cooper book," as it is now often called, was revised by Cooper himself in 1907 and 1909 and by his son-in-law in 1927; subsequent revision has been supervised by editorial committees which produced new versions in 1950, 1960, 1992, 2000 and 2006.
In the original core geographic area of Sacred Harp singing, northern Alabama and Georgia, the singers did not in general take to the Cooper book, as they felt it deviated too far from the original tradition. Obtaining a new book for these singers was made more difficult by the fact that B. F. White's son James L. White, who would have been the natural choice to prepare a new edition, was a non-traditionalist. His "fifth edition" (1909) won little support among singers, while his "fourth edition with supplement" (1911) enjoyed some success in a few areas. Ultimately, a committee headed by Joseph Stephen James produced an edition entitled Original Sacred Harp (1911) that largely satisfied the wishes of this community of singers.
The James edition was further revised in 1936 by a committee under the leadership of the brothers Seaborn and Thomas Denson, both influential singing school teachers. Both died shortly before the project was complete, and the remaining work was overseen by Paine Denson, son of Thomas. This book was entitled Original Sacred Harp, Denson Revision, and was itself revised 1960, 1967, and 1971; a more thorough revision and remodeling of this book, overseen by Hugh McGraw, is known simply as the "1991 Edition," though some singers still call it the "Denson book."
Even the highly traditionalist James and Denson books followed Cooper in adding alto parts to most of the old three-part songs (these alto parts led to an unsuccessful lawsuit by Cooper). Some people (see for instance the reference by Buell Cobb given below) believe that the new alto parts imposed an esthetic cost by filling in the former stark open harmonies of the three-part songs. Wallace McKenzie (reference below) argues to the contrary, basing his view on a systematic study of representative songs. In any event, there is little support today for abandoning the added alto parts, since most singers give a high priority to giving every side of the square its own part to sing.
It was thus that the traditionalism debate split the Sacred Harp community, and there seems little prospect that it will ever reunite under a single book. However, there have been no further splits. Both the Denson and the Cooper groups adopted traditionalist views for the particular form of Sacred Harp they favored, and these forms have now been stable for about a century.
The strength of traditionalism can be seen in the front matter of the two hymnbooks. The Denson book is forthrightly Biblical in its defense of tradition:
The Cooper book also shows a warm appreciation of tradition:
To say that both communities are traditionalist does not mean they discourage the creation of new songs. To the contrary, it is part of the tradition that musically creative Sacred Harp singers should become composers themselves and add to the canon. The new compositions are prepared in traditional styles, and could be considered a kind of tribute to the older material. New songs have been incorporated into editions of The Sacred Harp throughout the 20th century.
Two other books are currently used by Sacred Harp singers. A few singers in north Georgia employ the "White book," an expanded version of the 1869 B. F. White edition edited by J. L. White. African-American Sacred Harp singers, although primarily users of the Cooper book, also make use of a supplementary volume, The Colored Sacred Harp, produced by Judge Jackson (1883-1958) in 1934 and later revised in two subsequent editions. In his book Judge Jackson and The Colored Sacred Harp, Joe Dan Boyd has identified four regions of Sacred Harp singing among African-Americans - eastern Texas (Cooper book), northern Mississippi (Denson book), south Alabama and Florida (Cooper book), and New Jersey (Cooper book). The Colored Sacred Harp is limited to the New Jersey and south Alabama-Florida groups. Sacred Harp was "exported" from south Alabama to New Jersey. It appears to have died out among the African-Americans in eastern Texas.
In summary, three revisions of and one companion book to The Sacred Harp are currently in use in Sacred Harp singing:
Sacred Harp books generally contain a section of Rudiments, describing the basics of music and Sacred Harp singing.
In recent years, Sacred Harp singing has experienced a resurgence in popularity, as it is discovered by new participants who did not grow up in the tradition. New singers typically strive to follow the original southern customs at their singings. Traditional singers have responded to this need by providing help in orienting the newcomers. For instance, the Rudiments section of the 1991 Denson edition includes information on how to hold a singing; this information would be superfluous in a traditional context, but is important for a group starting up on its own. The tradition of the singing master is still carried on today, and singing masters from traditional Sacred Harp regions often travel outside the South to teach. In recent years an annual summer camp has been established, at which newcomers can learn to sing Sacred Harp.
There are now strong Sacred Harp singing communities in most major urban areas of the United States, and in many rural areas, as well. One of the first groups of singers formed outside the traditional Southern home region of Sacred Harp singing was in greater Chicago. The first Illinois convention was held in 1985, with enthusiastic and strongly proactive support by prominent Southern traditional singers. The Midwest Convention is now acknowledged to be one of the major American conventions, attracting hundreds of singers from all over the US and abroad. Similarly, the Sacred Harp singing community in western New England has become a prominent one in recent years. In March 2008, the 2008 Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention attracted over 300 singers from 25 states and a number of foreign countries. Other prominent singing conventions outside the South include, for example, the Garden State Sacred Harp Singing Convention in New Jersey and the Minnesota State Convention, which began in 1990.
Sacred Harp singing has spread beyond the borders of the United States. The UK has had an active Sacred Harp community since the early 1990s (the 17th UK Sacred Harp Convention will take place in September 2013, and there are regular singings in London, the Home Counties, the Midlands, Yorkshire, Lancashire, East Anglia, as well as in Scotland), Australia has been singing Sacred Harp since 2001, in 2008 a singing community was established in Poland (which hosted the first Camp Fasola Europe in September 2012), an active community sings in Bremen, Germany  (there are also singers in Berlin, Frankfurt and Leipzig), and most recently in Amsterdam. The first Australian All Day Singing was held in Sydney in 2012. In January 2009, Sacred Harp singing was introduced to Ireland, by Dr. Juniper Hill of University College Cork, spreading quickly from a class module into the wider community. In March 2011 U.C.C. hosted the first annual Ireland Sacred Harp Convention, and the Cork community held their first All-Day Singing on 22 October 2011. There are now also growing Sacred Harp communities in Belfast and Dublin.
The music used in Sacred Harp singing is eclectic. Most of the songs can be assigned to one of four historical layers.
(As noted above, the title "New Britain" is the name of the tune, not the song as a whole.)
There are a few additional songs in The Sacred Harp, 1991 edition that cannot be assigned to any of these four main layers. There are some very old songs of European origin, as well as songs from the English rural tradition that inspired the early New England composers. There are also a handful of songs by European classical composers (Ignaz Pleyel, Thomas Arne, and Henry Rowley Bishop). The book even includes a couple of hymns by Lowell Mason, long ago the implacable enemy of the tradition that The Sacred Harp has preserved to this day.
The description just given is based on The Sacred Harp, 1991 edition, also known as the Denson edition. The widely used "Cooper" edition overlaps considerably (about 60%) in content, but also includes many later songs. A detailed comparison of the two editions has been made by Sacred Harp scholar Gaylon L. Powell, available here.
The Sacred Harp was a popular name for 19th century hymn and tune books, with no fewer than four bearing the title. The first of these was compiled by John Hoyt Hickok and printed in Lewiston, Pennsylvania in 1832. The second was compiled by Lowell and Timothy Mason and printed in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1834, as part of the "better music" movement mentioned above. Amusingly, the Mason brothers' publisher brought this book out in a shape note edition, much against their wishes.
The third Sacred Harp was the one by B. F. White and E. J. King (1844), the origin of today's Sacred Harp singing tradition.
Lastly, according to W. J. Reynolds, writing in Hymns of Our Faith, there was yet a fourth Sacred Harp - The Sacred Harp published by J. M. D. Cates in Nashville, Tennessee in 1867.
See also the bibliographic entries under Shape note.