For over a year I’ve been singing twice a month with a Sacred Harp group in Anchorage. We sing 17th and 18th century craggy hymns from the mountains and hills of the rural American South. And we sing them LOUDLY. Not for performance but for the joy of singing, the joy of hearing craggy, mountainous harmonies that go in and out, down and around and over. I remember the first time I went to Sacred Harp, Peg, one of the regulars in our little group, smiled broadly and said, after we sang Coronation, “Don’t you just love singing the words ‘royal diadem?’ When do we ever get to sing that anywhere else?” Well, I had sung those words before but never with the wild abandon that I sang them here, in this singing square.
Each time we sing we sing first the shape notes—fa for the triangle, so for the round note, la for the square and me for the occasional diamond notes. When I felt daunted by the shape notes moving so quickly, I was immediately told by a veteran singer to “just use la for all the shapes right now. You’ll be right for at least a third of the time.” The most important thing she said is to “sing out. Don’t worry about whether you are have it all right. This is not about perfection, but participation.”
Sacred Harp singing is not pretty; it is not refined. Instead it is often raw; it can sound unfinished and its words and harmonies are jarring rather than soothing. The European music community of the 19th century rejected everything about this music because it did not fit classical norms and niceties. But the communities of the rural south kept singing it because it brought them life. Now it brings life to communities all over the world. Just listen to this Irish group as it sings and watch their faces. This is why I keep coming back to sing, even though the group might be small and my own voice is not all that great. I come for the feeling that you see on the faces of these singers in county Cork.
Rabbi Benjamin Salva captures this feeling when he writes,
….as we learn to sing with abandon, embracing our inner wild child, an innocent delight starts spreading into the rest of our life. We pause a little longer when we pass by wildflowers in bloom. We dance a little jig to elevator Muzak, not caring so much if our neighbors notice. The path of song extends our laughter and widens our smile. We cry more easily, too. The world moves us more, permeating our senses and nourishing our souls. As we set free the child within, we grow to love this precious life more, too. (taken from Spiritual Cross-Training: Searching through Silence, Stretch and Song (Grand Harbor Press), 2016.
I don’t know if I find my inner wild child. But I do know that when I am part of the Sacred Harp singers’ square, I feel totally alive and filled with joy.
To hear more about the tradition and hear more traditional music from the rural south and west where the music was not merely preserved but carried on go to….