Sacred Harp Singing in the Twin Cities
Sacred Harp singing, also known as shape-note singing, is an American musical tradition whose repertoire of songs draws from an early American Christian hymn book, originally published in 1844, called The Sacred Harp
. All Sacred Harp songs are sung in four-part harmony, without instrumental accompaniment, by singers seated facing one another in a square, with each of the four parts- treble, alto, tenor, and bass- forming a side of the square. Although the songs are Christian hymns, Sacred Harp singing is non-sectarian, and the singers welcome newcomers from all (or no) religious affiliations and backgrounds. Traditional Sacred Harp singing is usually entirely participatory, with the only audience being the singers themselves. The sound can be very loud and even harsh, by many Western performance music standards. Sacred Harp teacher Tollie Lee, from Georgia, often visits the Twin Cities for singings. His family has been singing Sacred Harp for many generations. He says, "I wouldn't cross the street to hear Sacred Harp music, but I'll cross the country to sing it!"
What happens at a singing?
A regularly scheduled Sacred Harp singing in the Twin Cities typically lasts two hours with a short break mid-way through. Singers take turns selecting which songs the group will sing, and whomever picks a song stands in the center of the square and leads it, keeping the time of the song for the singers to follow. Before a song begins, someone sings a note for each part to start the song with. If it's too high or low for comfortable singing, the pitch is adjusted. Sacred Harp singers do not rely on pitch pipes or other tuning devices; the tuning is by consensus. This is one of the many reasons Sacred Harp is called singers' music. Before the song is sung with the words, the leader first takes the singers through the song just singing the shape notes, then the song is sung with the words. In many cases the singers already know the melody, but singing it through with just the notes first is an important part of the Sacred Harp singing tradition.
In addition to regularly scheduled two-hour singings, there are all-day and all-weekend singing conventions, locally, all over the U.S., and sometimes in Britain and Canada. Many Sacred Harp singers enjoy traveling to distant conventions to meet other singers and enjoy their hospitality. Singing conventions usually involve potluck suppers (traditionally called dinner-on-the-grounds) and evening socials where the singers meet at someone's home and sing together more informally from sources other than the Sacred Harp, often other traditional hymnals or even traditional ballads and popular tunes.
What are shape notes?
The first shape-note system to gain acceptance in America was that in The Easy Instructor
of William Little and William Smith (1801), based on four-syllable or ‘fasola’ solfege sight-singing system. The system was devised as an aid to reading music, and "singing schools," with traveling schoolmasters-cum-composers, were a regular feature of life, a combination of entertainment and worship, in the late colonial era and the early period of the Republic.
The shape of the note (a triangle for fa, circle for sol, square for la, and diamond for mi) tells the reader what the pitch should be. (Recall, however, that the pitch is relative, and determined by consensus before the song begins.)
A brief history of Sacred Harp singing*
The appearance of shape-note tune books coincided with a significant migration of settlers into the South and Midwest in the late 18th and early 19th century, and shape-note publications appeared in the centers along the routes of travel. The successful early shape-note tune books contained anthems, psalm tunes and fuging-tunes of the New England composers.
The best-known and most widely used shape-note tune book, The Sacred Harp (1844), was compiled by Benjamin Franklin White and E.J. King. White established the Southern Musical Convention in 1845, which fostered Sacred Harp singings. Other singing conventions using The Sacred Harp were established in the late 19th century and early 20th; Sacred Harp singings spread from Georgia to Alabama, west to Texas and Oklahoma, north to Tennessee and south to northern Florida.
From the second decade of the 19th century until the outbreak of the Civil War, the publication of shape-note hymnody spread from Pennsylvania through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia south to Georgia and west to Missouri. Shape-note tune books were also published in Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio; use of The Sacred Harp spread into Alabama; and The Missouri Harmony was used as far south as Mississippi. With the Civil War, however, the publication of new rural shape-note tune books ceased, and after the war newer developments from the urban North brought about a considerable change in shape-note hymnody.
Listen to Sacred Harp singing
The 13th Annual Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention at Murphy's Landing in Shakopee September 28-29, 2002
Listen to a Sacred Harp song called Africa, number 178 in the Sacred Harp MP3 Download
Sacred Harp singers always sing the songs with the notes (fa, sol, la, mi) before singing them with the words. Use this link to listen to a Sacred Harp song called I'll Seek His Blessings, number 542 in the Sacred Harp. MP3 Download
The most widely used revisions in the Twin Cities are The Sacred Harp, by B.F. White and E.J. King (1991, maroon cover) and The B.F. White Sacred Harp, Revised Cooper Edition (2006, navy cover). The latter includes the song "Minnesota," composed in honor of the Twin Cities group by Alabama singer/composer Stanley Smith. The 1991 edition is the more widely used of the two editions of The Sacred Harp in use today, particularly in the north and central regions of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, and among the many Sacred Harp singers outside the South. The Cooper edition is used in the Florida panhandle, the southern regions of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, in Texas, and by black Sacred Harp groups in Alabama. A 20th-century tune book modeled on Cooper’s revision of The Sacred Harp, The Colored Sacred Harp (1934) by Judge Jackson, consists of songs composed by black shape-note singers. As in Cooper’s book, some of the songs are in the older, predominantly folk hymn style, and others are influenced by the gospel hymn idiom. Black singers use Cooper’s edition of The Sacred Harp for most of their singing, but sing from The Colored Sacred Harp on special occasions.
* From the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians
**Steven Sobol's tunebook reviews at http://www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~mudws/resource/chap01.html
Web resources on Sacred Harp singing
The national Sacred Harp web site which contains historical information, further resources, and singing schedules for all over the U.S., Canada, and England: http://www.fasola.org/
Twin Cities Sacred Harp page, with local singing schedules http://www.freude.com/mnfasola/
University of Mississippi Professor Warren Steel's web page http://www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~mudws/harp.html