I love to sing. A lot. All the time. And I’m loud. I just wish my love of singing came with a nicer voice, but we work with whatever instrument we’re given, I guess. Sadly, my voice is only utilitarian. It does the job in a choir, but that’s about it – nobody would ever want to hear me sing a solo. But it doesn’t stop me from singing and singing, like Prince Herbert from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. All I want to do is sing, but since I know it can be annoying to others, I try to limit the frequency and volume.
I got pretty good at sight singing using solfege syllables in high school and college and sometimes I pull out a book of sight singing exercises to practice alone in my room. It’s for fun. Before we had kids, sometimes my husband and I would spend our family home evenings singing hymns using solfege. Nerdy, I know, but I really miss it. There’s something about having to read and think and sing all at the same time that is especially satisfying. I sometimes think about joining a choir but I don’t have time for it right now. What to do? Luckily my husband found the answer.
Shape note singing is similar to solfege except it only uses mi, fa, sol and la, notating each syllable with a different shape. It originated in British parish church music but came to America around 1760, where it became popular in New England and eventually made its way to the south. One of the most famous shape note songbooks, The Sacred Harp, was published in 1844 and became so popular that communities formed Sacred Harp Societies for members to gather outside of regular church services to sing from the collection of hymns. Although not as common now as in the nineteenth century, there are still many active Sacred Harp groups throughout the U.S. who gather to sing and to keep alive arguably one of the oldest American musical traditions.
I learned about Sacred Harp singing in college and have watched Youtube videos from time to time, but I had always assumed I’d have to travel to Alabama or somewhere else in the South to see or participate in a singing myself. But I am happy to report that I was wrong. It turns out there’s a Sacred Harp group in Utah that has been meeting in Salt Lake City and Provo for the last ten years. We decided we’d better check it out.
Trained singers or others hearing Sacred Harp for the first time might say it’s not very pretty or refined. One friend I was talking to likened it to the sound of honking geese.
But there’s just something about it – the lack of restraint, the gusto, the volume – when I listen, I get the impression that the singers are just letting all the music they have inside themselves escape. Sometimes I try to describe that effect when I’m leading our congregation’s choir and I want a certain verse to have a “revival” feel to it – so full of zeal and fervor and joy that it’s almost a shout. There are just some moments that call for that sound of raw, unaffected praise. When I hear Sacred Harp singers, I’m reminded of a favorite scripture: “And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily as to the Lord, and not unto men;” (Colossians 3:23). These singers don’t really care what listeners think of their singing. They are too busy singing heartily.
Can you see why I might want to try this? A place where I can just sit and sight sing, a place where I don’t have to have a pretty voice, where I can sing as loudly as I want? It’s a dream come true!
The Utah Sacred Harp Singers meet in Provo at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on the second Tuesday of every month. Books are available to use while you are there or you can purchase your own from them for $25 (you can also download it for free here). Participation is free of charge, but they do ask for a small donation to cover their costs. We happened to go at the end of the term so there were several college students participating to earn extra credit for their Folklore class.
A typical Sacred Harp singing is set up in the hollow square formation with each of the four parts forming a side of the square and facing inward.
The group wasn’t large, maybe four to each part, but because our square fit into a relatively small space and because we all sang so loudly, it never felt like we were small in numbers. We sang for one hour then took a short break and sang for another hour. If I had known we’d be singing that long, I would have paced myself a little better. My voice was pretty shot by the end. But the amazing thing was that I was not the loudest alto there, not by a long shot, and that may be a first for me. I could sing as loudly as I wanted and not feel like I was sticking out, and it was really quite thrilling.
The format was pretty simple – we went around the square in order, letting each person choose which hymn we would sing next. The leader would call out our pitches and we would sing through the hymn once singing the shape-note syllables. Then we sang through with the text (but they limit it to only three verses per hymn.)
I wish I had studied or practiced a bit before I came, if only to help me remember which syllable went with each shape. I kept up well enough, but on some of the faster passages, I found myself just “ahh”ing instead of actually singing the syllables. It’s also a bit tricky to read the text because the first verse is written under the treble line, the second under the alto, etc., so my eyeballs had to shift pretty quickly back and forth from the notes to the words, sometimes at a greater distance than I am used to.
I kept catching myself looking at the key signature so I could remind myself where “do” was, only to remember that there is no “do” in shape-note singing. It was hard for me to ignore all my old ways of sight singing and rely only on the shapes and intervals. Once I stopped trying to overthink things, I noticed that it’s actually a much easier way to sing. It still doesn’t make sense to me that there are two different notes given the same syllable, so I’m not sure how shape-note singing was supposed to teach note reading more effectively than solfege, but I just went with it.
I want to spend more time studying the hymns themselves because so many of them have some similarities with hymns I’m familiar with, but with different melodies or differences in texts. (Interesting to note – one number I wanted our choir to sing with a little more Sacred Harp style was the familiar hymn “How Firm a Foundation,” but in an arrangement which, as I just found out this week, takes the tune directly from the Sacred Harp.) It would be cool to trace the evolution of certain hymns from the nineteenth century to now (I’m sure I’m not the first to think that – there are probably several dissertations out there).
I haven’t had much time to look through the book but there are some interesting tune names, including Panting for Heaven, Ode on Science, War Department, and The Dying Californian (which seems to be relatively well-known among fiddlers and was even covered by a heavy metal band). Many of the tunes share names with places, including the last two towns we lived in, Pittsford and Granville.
My husband noticed how many of the hymns deal with death and dying. Turns out that 78 of the 573 are about death, including this cheerful ditty:
On a whim I looked up how many refer to joy or joyfulness and according to the online index, there are also 78, so there’s some balance. And even with all the gloomy topics and the minor mode of many of the hymns, I didn’t feel even a little bit sad as I sat in a beautiful church singing with all my soul with a bunch of strangers doing the same. I felt tired and my sore throat was ready for the healing power of a pie shake (just around the corner!), but it was the good kind of tired. I don’t mean to sound like a complainer because it really was joyful to sing a glad new song before parting friends with a thankful heart. I hope they’ll save a spot for me at the next singing.