Ever since our soul-satisfying “Sacred Harp” sing at Unity Hall, Barneveld, I have been trying to think of a way to share the shapenote experience in writing. Knowing in advance that I won’t do it justice, here goes...
First a quick word about shapenote and Sacred Harp. We call the genre shapenote because the notes are written on ordinary staves but with four shapes which are sung as Fa, Sol, La and Mi. This was designed as a means of helping people to read music by making the intervals easier to visualize. The Sacred Harp is a collection of sacred songs, odes and anthems first compiled in 1844 and revised four times since.* These are sung acapella by men and women sitting facing into a square; so, in effect the singers themselves are the only audience. We do it because we wholeheartedly love doing it and because doing it feels so good.
We have no tryouts because we believe the human voice is the Sacred Harp we were given. Thus, every voice is welcome. And we have no rehearsals because singing Sacred Harp is worship, not a performance.
The first thing you’ll notice at a shapenote singing is the strong, bone-strumming sound of its open harmony - a lot of fourths and fifths. For me, it’s gospel with guts. At first hearing, these harmonies penetrated right to my marrow and I knew I had to do it. Many others report the same instant addiction.
We sing at full voice in four parts, tenor, treble, alto and bass; and since both men and women sing tenor and treble, it often sounds like six parts. Unlike other choral singing, we simply let it fly. We say, half jokingly, that if you can hear the person on either side of you, you aren’t singing loud enough. Most of us have learned to walk a fine line, singing at our loudest but in a voice “natural and unpretentious” (i.e. not standing out) as directed in our book’s section on Rudiments. We have no soloists and there are no stars. Mercifully, those whose voices tend toward shrill or piercing generally soften their vocal edges out of kindness to fellow singers’ eardrums.
By tradition, each song is called (chosen) by a leader who stands facing the tenors and beats the tempo while all of us beat the tempo along with the leader. Often, a leader’s facial expression and body language sets the affect with which the song is sung - unbridled joy, square-shouldered resolution, soaring gratitude and so forth. The songs really do feel fresh each time.
We don’t care about crisp attacks and cut-offs. We scoop or bounce into notes when that’s what feels right. It’s pretty much all forte. We do little talking, typically singing “lessons” of 50 minutes, separated by 10 minute breaks. In a day, we may sing close to 100 pieces so lustily that we’ve had an aerobic workout. Nobody sings Sacred Harp diffidently.
Sacred Harp is a wholeheartedly welcoming tradition. Like AA, we are a ragtag bunch unified only by a single God-inspired purpose. Our tradition does not recognize the differences between us. But it surely recognizes our unity; and somehow, it’s easy to feel unity with others so fully invested and unguarded in the moment.
Because we sing in a square, we enjoy countless spontaneous connections as we catch other singers’ eyes in moments of ecstatic joy, a shared smile, warm encouragement or simply unspoken friendship. And because this is an old, old tradition, we feel connected to the countless singers who have gone before us and to the composers who have given us these amazing songs to sing.
You can hear it on cd’s or see it on a dvd but to get the experience, you need to be there in the midst of it. Singing in the square with other Sacred Harp singers feels like sitting in a waterfall, raising your voice into its raw power. Singing together we are that waterfall, pounding with the relentless pulse of human voices pouring out love to the God our hearts know better than our minds ever can.
You can find local singings at www.fasola.org. We have seat waiting for you.
*see The Sacred Harp - 1991 edition