The Initial Appeal of Sacred Harp

by Gaylon L. Powell

Music: Away Here in Texas
This article is reprinted from the March-April 1996 issue of Away Here in Texas.

All across the country, outside the Old South and in Texas, people from all walks of life are discovering Sacred Harp. What was it that initially attracted them? Recently I posed this question to the Sacred Harp singers on the Internet. Although I received numerous responses, their answers are basically one of five aspects: the unique sound; the music is for everyone to sing and not for performance; the meaningful poetry; the strong community atmosphere; and the historical aspect.

The first aspect that a new singer is exposed to is the sound, and to some of the new singers, this is the initial appeal. Some are amazed because this is not the type of religious music they are used to. They find that this sound is the "joyful noise" referred to in Psalms 100. Not only is the sound joyful, but at the same time it is mournful. Its unique harmony, known as dispersed harmony, may be unfamiliar to the new singer, but it is comfortable and comforting. The energy that the singers use to sing can also be appealing; with this much energy, it shows that the singers love and enjoy the music they are singing.

The new singer will find that this is fully participatory for everyone present and not some sort of religious performance, especially one that is for personal gain. It has such simplicity that even an "untrained" singer can participate. If there is someone singing that perhaps has difficulty carrying a tune, nobody will say anything. People who have been told all of their lives that they cannot sing, find welcome and are encouraged to join in. The whole setting is very much like that found in Ephesians 5:19, "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." This text did not even mention the quality of the voice.

Some new singers are attracted to the spirituality of the singing. The texts that are used all have a great meaning; each one is like a sermon unto itself. Attending an all-day singing can be a moving experience. Even the individuals who are not at all religious appreciate the spiritualness of the singing and are moved by it. Sacred Harp can be a religious experience for the new singer that cannot be found elsewhere. On page 125 in both revisions, the fourth verse, which is not in either revision, of that poem, that the 1991 Revision gives credit to Caleb Jarvis Taylor, states this sentiment best:

I find Him in singing, I find Him in prayer;
In sweet meditation He always is near,
My constant companion, O may we ne'er part;
All glory to Jesus, He dwells in my heart.

The aspect that probably overwhelms the new singer is the sense of community among the singers. They notice that the singers are more than just friends--they are family. These new singers are even welcomed to join in on that same family level. Dick Dunagan, of Beloit, Wisconsin, said that being welcomed to join in on the singing had a distinct feeling of "coming home." The new singer is overwhelmed at the dinner that has been spread on the dinner tables and invited to partake by the home folks. Alix Baillie, of Takoma Park, Maryland, had this observation, "The way we sing to each other, feed each other, welcome each other into our homes, accept all comers unconditionally-that's real Christianity, and 'real' most other religions as well. It is extraordinary and inexpressibly beautiful. Along with the sense of community with singers across the square is the sense of community with singers who have gone before-those recently lost, and those long-dead."

The new singer is also attracted to the historical aspect of the Sacred Harp singings. This singing is not some passing fad that has just sprung up and soon will fade just as quickly. It is our heritage, not only of the Southern singers, but the Northern singers as well. Its practice has remained essentially unchanged down through the years. Participation in the Sacred Harp singings would be to preserve a part of our heritage.

Lift up your heads, Immanuel's friends,
And taste the pleasures Jesus sends;
Let nothing cause you to delay;
But hasten on the good old way!

I have felt that it has been a real privilege to be able to read the responses e-mailed to me on this query. Those like myself who have grown up singing Sacred Harp and know no other way, would have a tendency to take all of this for granted. We should always be mindful of the rich tradition and heritage that we have.

Last Revised 4/2/2021