Saturday, June 14, 2008

My E-Mail to My Pastor About Sacred Harp Singing

I've been meaning to post about our family's interest in Sacred Harp singing, but I've been too lazy to put together a coherent post. Tonight, though, I wrote to our pastor about it. So, what the heck, I'll just post the substance of that e-mail.

Our pastor is a history and genealogy buff, originally from Pennsylvania; that's why I figured he'd be interested in shape-note singing. I've been promising for ages to get him some CDs of Sacred Harp music. I finally just went ahead and burned a few. (Shhh, don't tell the CD companies. Mea culpa, mea culpa. )

OK, here e-mail to my pastor, ta-da!


Hi, Father ______! ...[skipping introductory blather]...

I burned two contraband CDs for you....The first is kind of a gentle introduction to Sacred Harp shape-note singing. The second is the Real Thing, pure and unadulterated.

On the first CD, I put some stuff performed by Joel Cohen and the Boston Camerata, Anonymous 4, and the Word of Mouth Chorus--pretty much in that order, I believe.

The Boston Camerata stuff is from a CD called The American Vocalist. The material is not technically Sacred Harp; it comes from several 19th-century New England song-books. Some of the songs are also found in the Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony song-books, but the performance style is a bit different (not as discordant, LOL).

The Anonymous 4 material is mostly from the Sacred Harp tradition, with a few later 19th-c. revivalist hymns thrown in, but Anonymous 4's performance style is very refined--not anywhere near as raw as shape-note singing is supposed to be. However, the Anonymous 4 singers sound like angels, so who cares? Authenticity isn't everything! :-)

The Word of Mouth Chorus section is much more authentic. It's from a CD called Rivers of Delight, which is widely considered the perfect introduction to the Sacred Harp tradition. The singing is very professional yet still raw and authentic enough to sound like real shape-note singing. It's as if you took a little eensy backwoods church's shape-note singing and cleaned it up a lot...LOL.

I've also included an Appalachian folk hymn called "Bright Morning Stars Are Rising," which isn't from the Sacred Harp tradition, as far as I know, but it's waaay cool.

I don't know if you have seen the movie Cold Mountain (I haven't), but supposedly it includes a funeral scene where the shape-note hymn "Idumea" is sung. Well, "Idumea" is on this first [newly burned] CD, too. Twice: once performed by Anonymous 4 (a very haunting, ethereal performance) and once performed by the Word of Mouth Chorus. It's the song that begins "And am I born to die?...To lay this body down." (I declare, at least 90% of shape-note hymns are about death! It seems that way, anyway.)

So, anyway, the first CD goes from "smoother/less authentic" at the beginning to "more raw/more authentic" toward the end. It kind of eases you into the shape-note sound, so to speak.

The second CD is from a Library of Congress recording of an actual Sacred Harp Sing in some eensy little backwoods church in Alabama. I believe it's from the 1940s. The sound quality's not that great. But it's as authentic as you can get. It is definitely not going to be everybody's cup of tea, and it may not be yours, Father...let's just say that it's an acquired taste. ;) But, as I say, it's as authentic as can be, and it's a great slice of rural Americana from a bygone era. No one could accuse the singers of being slick professionals! There's one lady in there whose voice sounds like a carrot-grater being scraped over a sheet of glass. But, once you get used to it, it's actually quite powerful and moving.

I understand that the Library of Congress made a bunch of these recordings of authentic shape-note singing, in order to capture and preserve a genuinely American folk idiom before it slips away into oblivion. Some of the later recordings have better sound quality. Maybe we'll buy some of those, one of these days.

For our family, this music has been downright addictive. We're big fans of Celtic music, too, and I'm a huge fan of Renaissance polyphony. Apparently both Celtic ballads and Renaissance polyphony influenced the American shape-note tradition. Which makes perfect sense to me: Like Celtic and polyphonic music, shape-note music is very ethereal, almost eerie, and truly haunting. I've always loved that haunting, plangent sound. It seems like the closest thing to the music of Heaven that we can get here on earth.

And, as I mentioned, a lot of the lyrics are about death. And also about Heaven and yearning for Heaven--that whole "wayfaring stranger" theme. It's amazing how otherworldly this music is, both in its eerie sound and in its afterlife-focused lyrics. What a contrast to so much of modern evangelicalism, with its self-help books and prosperity gospel and "Your Best Life Now" emphasis. I mentioned this to my husband Steve, and he reminded me of the obvious: In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the shape-note tradition arose, most rural Americans were hardscrabble-poor; their lives were full of hardship; many of them died relatively young. So, quite naturally, they focused on the afterlife. Fast-forward to the early 21st century: Even in a recession, so many of us are living in the kind of comfort our ancestors could not even have imagined. "Affluenza" leads us to focus on this life almost to the exclusion of the next.

Well, anyway, Father...sorry for the dissertation. ...

OK, one more thing. Someone asked me once, "Why is a Catholic like you so interested in this very Protestant music?" (I believe that the only religious congregations who still sing this stuff as part of worship are small Southern rural churches in the Churches of Christ, Primitive Baptist, and Independent Baptist traditions. It may also be big among some Wesleyans...a lot of the hymns adapted for shape-note singing were originally written by Charles Wesley.)

Well, I replied that most of this music really resonates with the Catholic sensibility. First of all, the Celtic-influenced ethereal quality of the music resonates with my half-Irish soul, LOL. And then, too, the pietistic lyrics--especially the lyrics by Charles Wesley--are very Catholick-y, if that makes any sense. If the Wesleys had been Catholics, they would have been very pietistic Catholics, devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and all that. (I think they were closet-crypto-Catholics, actually, though they didn't realize it themselves!) Also, the recurring theme in shape-note hymns--the yearning for Heaven--is universal; it crosses all confessional boundaries. This is not the music of 19th-century backwoods Baptists. It is the music of the human soul.

And on that note (no pun intended!), I will end this pedantic tome!


More later...on this subject and on any others that strike my fancy.

UPDATE: My pastor surprised me by saying that he liked the most authentic CD best: the recording by the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers. He said it reminded him of liturgical music--oriented toward God, not man; a form of worship rather than a performance. Well, it's certainy that! ;)


FrGregACCA said...


First, a story about Fr. John Wesley: he was doing his open air preaching one day, whereupon a group of hecklers accused him of being a "papist". Well, there was a Jesuit standing by. "No, Wesley's not one of us," the good Father said, "but we wish he were."

Second, our Church, while Syriac in theological tradition, is culturally very much Southern Appalachian. Thus, one of my colleagues specializes in taking psalms, ancient hymns, odes, etc., and paraphrasing them so that they fit with tunes of various meters. For example, take the following, originally from Ephrem the Syrian, set to the tune of "Morning has broken":

"Have mercy upon us this passing morning/For the sake of that morning that does not pass/Make us to stand at thy right hand/Make us to stand at thy right hand."

And so on.

dianonymous said...

Father---that is so cool!

Sometimes I wonder whether music may be the most effective tool for ecumenism. I'm not sure what I mean by that, but...its' just something I feel in my "gut."

FrGregACCA said...


It sure doesn't hurt.

I grew up in an Evangelical/Fundamentalist environment. I still remember my shock when I learned that "Faith of our Fathers" had been written by a Roman Catholic priest!

Then, of course, there are the immortal words of Chicago's late Mayor Daley. In the sixties, he was asked what sort of Church music he preferred. "The great Catholic composers," said Daley, "like Bach." (J.S. Bach, of course, was Lutheran.)