The Sacred Harp Singing held recently at the Elmore-Center United Methodist Church, reputed to be the 159th annual edition, may be the oldest in America. Participating in it was almost like taking a trip in time back to the worship practices of the rural South of pre-Civil War days.
Some of the texts of hymns were familiar to me. We sang “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand” and “Amazing Grace,” but to tunes unlike their modern setting. And we sang “Brethren We Have Met to Worship” and “How Firm a Foundation” to the current tunes. But most of the nearly 100 hymns we sang were new and strange to my ear.
Commonly, this strain of worship music is called “fa, so, la”. The tunes are based on a four-note scale with each tone indicated by a shape of the note. Those who learn this style can look at a shape on the line of music and know what sound to make. (An excellent Web page with history, resources, dates, and explanations can be found at www.fasola.org.)
Sacred Harp is four-part singing. The singers arrange themselves in a square with those singing each part (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) seated on their specific side. Each part is of equal significance. So, unlike contemporary hymn singing, the melody is not always carried by the sopranos with the other parts harmonizing with them. Rather, each part is singing a somewhat different tune. The result is termed a polyphony.
This arrangement seems strange and difficult to the uninitiated. For me, it sounded something like a musical “free for all.” And it seemed to be set in a minor key, even when it was not. But, as the day wore on, I was strongly affected by its haunting beauty.
Jack Pate, a local banker, serves as the president of the singing. He is a gentle, somewhat shy person. He, or Clarence McCool, the moderator, called upon first one and then another singer to select and lead a song. The singers would first sing through the hymn using the fa, so, la syllables, and then they would sing the printed words. This continues through the morning and the afternoon with a lunch served by the church intervening. Everyone was given opportunity to be a song leader before the day ended.
Singers came from many miles around. They all brought their own copy of the Sacred Harp songbook. It was first complied in 1844 and most recently revised in 1991.
Several of those in attendance are well-known in Sacred Harp circles. Toney Smith is a member of the national Sacred Harp music committee. Tim Reynolds, from Nashville, moderates several singings in Tennessee. Singers will attend 20 to 30 of these singings across the Southeast each year. Denominationally, the 30 or so singers who attended the Elmore-Center singing this week are Missionary, Free Will and Primitive Baptists and Methodists, for the most part.
Although Sacred Harp singings are found across America and in England, the center of activity is in Northern Alabama.
Nearly 70 persons formed an audience during the day. Some had been singers in years past, but no longer participate in that way. Some just enjoyed the music. And some seem to have been only curious on-lookers. The actual singing lasted nearly four hours.
The crowd at Elmore-Center was older. This is in part the consequence of the event being held on a weekday. It is also partly the consequence of the nature of the music. However, Sacred Harp singing, I am told, is growing in popularity, and younger persons are more often seen at those singing which are held on the weekends.
The hymn texts deal with many theological themes including sin, repentance, faith, salvation, heaven, hell, and personal morality. Death was subject of many of the songs, as was anticipation of heaven. Prayer was the action most often mentioned.
Many of the texts were authored by well know writers of the 18th century such as Issac Watts and Charles Wesley. Other texts are drawn directly from scripture.
I was particularly taken by “War Department,” a hymn that first appeared in print in 1830. It is brief with only four lines:
“No more shall the sound of war-whoop be heard
The ambush and slaughter no more feared
The tomahawk; buried, shall rest in the ground
And peace and good-will to the nations abound”
This is a prayer, the answer of which, has been experienced only briefly now and again from then until now. It is a prayer that we need to pray and sing again.
The singers have asked that I invite you to the 160th Sacred Harp singing at Elmore-Center UMC, near Gordo, Ala., the second Wednesday of August 2004.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.