More on the singings...
Sacred Harp singing is four-part, a cappella (no instruments) singing of shape-note songs from a book called The Sacred Harp. Singers gather, often at a church, to enjoy this music and the fellowship with other singers. All-day singings begin around 9 or 10 in the morning and last until 2 or 3 in the afternoon, with a break for lunch at the noon hour. "Dinner on the grounds", as it is called, is customarily provided by local singers and members of the host church. These all-day singings are usually annual events and last for either one or two days. In some cities, local monthly "practice" singings can be found. These generally last for 2-3 hours and have lower attendance, but singers enjoy getting together more regularly.
|Texas State Convention. Photo by Joshua Martin.|
The singing begins with an opening song and often a prayer. Although there is a "chairperson" who starts the singing and calls breaks, there is no formal hierarchy. Songs are sung one right after the other, with a different person leading each song.
Singers sit in a hollow square facing inward, emphasizing that this is a participatory event, not a performance. The leader, who stands in the middle of the square, chooses the tune and verses. From the front row, one of the tenors gives the key by singing the starting notes. Many singers will beat time as they sing. Some rock back and forth or tap their feet. The physical experience definitely involves more than just the vocal chords! When the song is over, the secretary calls the next leader, and the process repeats.
Anyone may lead, and anyone may sit in the square to sing. New singers are often hesitant to sit in the square, but it is truly the best way to learn and join in the experience. Many who attend singings will choose to simply listen, often following along in a book. Singers, listeners, and supporters are all of equal importance in the Sacred Harp community.
The style of Sacred Harp singing is raw and unpolished. Singing is loud, joyful, and wonderfully expressive. This music is personal to those who sing it, and the raw emotion that is heard in their singing can be more moving than the most polished professional performance. I find it refreshing to sing in an atmosphere of such joy and acceptance. One of the greatest blessings is that this music really is for anyone and everyone.