The Sacred Harp
The Sacred Harp is the best-known shape-note song book used in Georgia.
Development of Shape-Note Singing
The Sacred Harp uses notation developed by the progressive New England singing masters William Little and William Smith, who published the Easy Instructor in 1801. Their shape-note system was designed to teach sight-reading and enable users to sing complex, sophisticated music.
The practice of singing the scale in syllables"Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti"originated in Europe long before 1800. Sometimes not seven but four syllables were used: fa, sol, la, and mi.
Singing masters taught sight-reading by having students first "sing the shapes." The line above, for example, would be sung as "La la sol mi sol la sol mi la la sol." This practice survives in Sacred Harp singing today. Singers first sing the shapes, or syllables for the notes of their parts, and then the words.
Shape-note tune books and the singing masters who produced them, as well as the social and cultural forces that affected shape-note singing, have been widely studied. Scholars have written extensively about The Sacred Harp itself, its editions, and its survival as the most resilient of the four-shape books. Neither the Civil War (1861-65) nor the introduction of seven-shape books and round-note denominational hymnals extinguished singers' enthusiasm for The Sacred Harp. Nor did the coming of radio and records or such newer styles of sacred music as gospel.
Singers today are likely to use one of two revisions. The B. F. White Sacred Harp, known as "the Cooper book," descends from a 1902 revision by W. M. Cooper of Dothan, Alabama.
Today's popularity of Sacred Harp singing owes much to B. F. White and the subsequent singers who collected and arranged tunes, taught singing schools, and wrote about and faithfully supported shape-note singing. Especially deserving mention is Hugh McGraw, who has worked tirelessly to promote learning and to reach new singers. McGraw was named a National Heritage Fellow in 1982 for his efforts on behalf of Sacred Harp singing. Another singing master is Richard DeLong of Carrollton, who served with McGraw and others on the 1991 revision committee. Among Georgia singers who use the Cooper revision, David Lee of Hoboken has traveled and taught. The efforts of these singers and many others have spread Sacred Harp singing, and today singers gather in such Georgia cities as Atlanta and Tallapoosa, as well as in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Birmingham, Alabama; Boston, Massachusetts; and Chicago, Illinois.
A Sacred Harp Singing
Sacred Harp singings follow a characteristic pattern established by White and maintained by such later singing masters as the Densons and McGraw.
The sound of Sacred Harp may vary a bit from region to region, and white singers have different styles from African American singers. But regardless of location or voices, Sacred Harp sounds unlike academic choral singing or gospel singing in which melody dominates and harmony embellishes and supports it. The tunes of The Sacred Harp do have a melody part, the tenor, but it coexists with three other parts in no way merely supportive of a dominant melody. The parts in shape-note singing are so distinct that traditional tune books like The Sacred Harp print them on separate staves, displaying what is called dispersed harmony.
Gapped scales (having less than the usual seven notes) and unusual harmonies help account for this traditional music's characteristic sound. Also unique is the doubling of two parts, both men and women singing tenor and treble. Untrained voices prevail, so the singing sounds loud and exhilarating. Although singers in different communities may prefer slower or faster times, leaders set the tempo. One occasionally hears singers warn each other, "Watch the leader," when the class goes too slowly or runs over a fermata (pause sign).
Sacred Harp Tunes
In the 1844 Sacred Harp and its various revisions many writers' works appear, but most of the texts are eighteenth-century English hymns by such poets as Isaac Watts,
Some hymn tunes, both English and American, were originally associated with work songs, sea songs, drinking songs, or similar tunes of secular folk origin. Some, like the familiar "Old Hundred," came from the psalm-singing tradition. Others are "fuging tunes," complicated settings in a style originating in the English Renaissance and based on metrical psalm-tunes. The fuge, like the fugue of Bach and other eighteenth-century composers, takes its name from a word that means "to fly" or "to flee," but a fuging tune is not the same thing as a fugue. A shape-note fuging tune has one or more sections with staggered entrances; the various parts begin the fuge in different measures, rest, enter again, and sing over each other, indeed making the music soar.
Composers of fuging tunes and other settings include New Englanders William Billings, Timothy Swan, and Daniel Read and a number of Georgians as well: White and his coeditor, the young E. J. King; John P. Reese and his brother H. S. Reese, born in Jasper County; and Elder Edmund Dumas of Forsyth. (Contributors did not always compose the tunes associated with them. In The Sacred Harp a tune may be ascribed to a composer, an arranger who learned it from older singers, or merely to an earlier tune book.) Some tunes, either from their origin or because of shaping through generations of traditional singers, may properly be called folk tunes.
Sacred Harp singing preserves traditional ways from earlier times but is also a living art form in which composers write new songs. The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition, for instance, contains notable new compositions along with texts and tunes from previous centuries.
Since 1844 Sacred Harp singers have defined, nurtured, and passed along their art and their beliefs. Participants agree on two points. First, this singing is democratic and independent. Free of denominational ties, it represents a religious expression outside the limits of any church's doctrine and discipline. Second, it is for singers, not listeners. Those who sing enter into a community where sophisticated musical skills, veneration for singers of previous generations, and constant immersion in the poetry of the songs make for a powerful experience.
Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, dir. Matt Hinton and Erica Hinton (Atlanta: Awake Productions, 2006).
John Beall, Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997).
The B. F. White Sacred Harp: Revised Cooper Edition, ed. John Etheridge, et al. (Samson, Ala.: Sacred Harp Book, 1992).
Joe Dan Boyd, Judge Jackson and the Colored Sacred Harp (Montgomery: Alabama Folklife Society, 2003).
Buell E. Cobb Jr., The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978).
Dorothy D. Horn, Sing to Me of Heaven: A Study of Folk and Early American Materials in Three Old Harp Books (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1970).
George Pullen Jackson, White Spirituals of the Southern Uplands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933).
The Sacred Harp, 1991 Revision, ed. Hugh McGraw, et al. (Bremen, Ga.: Sacred Harp Publishing, 1991).
Malinda Snow, Georgia State University
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.