“Music is an especially powerful shaping force … it engages many different areas of the brain … Just as physical activity is essential to maintaining a healthy body, challenging one’s brain, keeping it active, engaged, flexible and playful, is not only fun. It is essential to cognitive fitness.” – Oliver Sacks, The New York Times, Opinion Pages, Jan. 1, 2011, “This Year, Change Your Mind.”
Longevity readers got a hint about what the Portland Sacred Harp singers are up to these days with news of their annual singing convention and 20-year celebration held October 15 and 16, 2011. Some longevity readers were perhaps inspired to join in, swelling total attendance to 186. The group sang 96 songs on Sunday. One might guess Saturday’s singing facilitated such an impressive feat—warming up those well-practiced vocal folds. One can also guess participants upped their individual cognitive fitness levels.
This year’s convention exemplified the status tradition holds within the Sacred Harp community. Out of town singers can generally rely on fellow singers to welcome them, perhaps put them up for a night or two, sing with them and share the customary feast. Extra songbooks were on hand for any empty hands.
“Sustained singing is an ancient technique for creating altered states of consciousness through hyperventilation, elevated blood oxygen, and cranial and somatic vibration. Sacred Harp singers sing at full volume and extreme range for hours at a time, accruing all of those effects in abundance.” –Stephen Marini, Sacred Harp singer and professor of religion, Wellesley College
So who are these people?
Anybody who loves to sing can join a Sacred Harp group. It is open to all genders, faiths and backgrounds. Differences are acceptable; focus is on the singing, not on expressing opinions or noting differences. This is an American heritage with groups all over the U.S., yet Southerners are considered the longstanding experts. Oregon groups are active in Bend, Eugene, Salem and Portland. The Pacific Northwest Association serves groups in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska.
“More surprising is Sacred Harp’s ability to bring together, from around the nation, North and South, people with very different backgrounds and lives—religious and secular, traditional and alternative, conservative Republicans and ultraliberal Democrats—to achieve both a meaningful community and an openness to difference.” –Laura Clawson, Sacred Harp singer and scholar, p. ix, from “I Belong to This Band, Hallelujah!”
How it all started
Inept singing emanating out of most 19th century American Christian churches generated much of the early passion for Sacred Harp singing using shape notes.
No, really! Could all early church-going people read, let alone interpret a European-based music score? Imagine the different rhythms and pacing, the pure noise that might erupt between those devout non-readers and readers, singers and non-singers.
And consider education. Prior to the Civil War (1861-1865) only about 50 percent of 5-to-19-year-old white people were enrolled in school; for blacks the enrollment figure was closer to 10 percent. Forty years after the introduction of “The Sacred Harp” songbook the percentage of black students was up to about 34 percent. By 1940 overall enrollment rates for 5 to 19 year olds, for both whites and blacks, was about 75 percent.
However, being in school does not guarantee reading skill. Illiteracy rates, according to the Bureau of the Census, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, are defined as the percentage of people 14 yrs. old and up who cannot read or write in any language. In 1870 (the earliest year available) about 20 percent of native-born people were judged illiterate. By 1979 the illiteracy rate was at 0.6 percent.
Being able to sing fa, so, la, mi to a triangle, oval, rectangle and diamond shape-note allowed the simplified complex harmonies inherent to Sacred Harp to erupt and flourish.
Sing, sing the songs
The Sacred Harp songbook was introduced in 1844 by Benjamin Franklin White. It employed the simplified form of musical notation using 4 shapes and arranging song by voice: treble, alto, tenor or bass. Any gender could theoretically sing any range, lending a texture to song unmatched by any other voice tradition. Songs are sung as a group, participation not performance. No applause, please. Songs are sung without music accompaniment, a cappella.
“I suppose my greatest joy is seeing so many people who come together like this for the sole purpose of singing this music and being in each other’s company.” –Rosie Lindsey, Portland Sacred Harp singer, commenting on the recent singing convention
B. F. White’s “Sacred Harp” songbook evolved and is described by Sacred Harp and music scholar David Warren Steel as “an eclectic tunebook, containing examples of several different forms, genres, and styles.” Its range represents music from English and European sources from 1550, through the 1810-1900 work of Southern composers and on through the 20th century. There are psalms, adaptations from marches, dance tunes and camp-meeting spirituals. One could reckon there’s something for nearly everyone. Again, according to Steel, “Most of the words are religious, and are the work of English evangelical poets such as Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley.”
What about god?
“We come away from a singing with our spirits lifted but it’s not necessarily a spiritual practice.” –Lyle Lindsey, Portland Sacred Harp singer
According to scholar Clawson, and through discussion with some of the Portland Sacred Harp singers, investment in the religious nature of Sacred Harp is optional. For some, the Christian aspects are all important; others, particularly for the significant number of Sacred Harp singers of the Jewish faith, other, or no faith, it’s all okay anyway. The joy, reverence and any spiritual satisfaction comes with the activity, community and just plain singing.
“People come to a Sacred Harp singing expecting a sing-a-long. It’s that, but it’s a whole lot more. It’s truth in a time of uncertainty. It’s connection in a time of isolation.” –Mary McDonald-Lewis, Portland Sacred Harp singer
Do I have to know how to sing and read music?
Answer A: No.
The essential impulse is to 1) love singing; and 2) embrace the learning curve required to familiarize oneself with the shape notes and singing style.
Some people familiar with reading music in the traditional manner actually face a bit of unlearning. Remember, Sacred Harp produces a sound like no other group of human voices. It didn’t get there by holding to European traditions.
“For experienced singers, Sacred Harp offers a practice that’s different from traditional choirs—it’s quirky, folksy, unique … and loud.” –Rosie Lindsey
Answer B: Not necessarily.
“I can let go when I sing Sacred Harp. I get to connect with what I love about singing.” –Mike Fish, Portland Sacred Harp singer and member of the Portland Bach Cantata Choir
NEXT: Sacred Harp, 2: the music is in the details.
See Laura Clawson’s “I Belong to this Band, Hallelujah” (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2011). Check with your local bookstore or library; is available at Multnomah County Library and Powell’s Books.