For a book that’s inspired great composers throughout its existence, the Bible takes its sweet time getting around to music. Genesis wends its way all the way through creation, taking snakes, an unfortunate apple diet and a famous fratricide before namechecking the first musician, Jubal, “the father of all such as handle the harp and organ” (not to be confused with his brother, Jabal, “the father of such as dwell in tents”).
No, the only sounds even mentioned in the first chapters of the Bible are voices: Adam’s, Eve’s, a serpent’s and God’s. Maybe that’s why the music called Sacred Harp, also known as shaped-note or fasola, is so potent, hearkening back to the beginnings of everything because it is contrived only of voices.
This weekend, the primal, unearthly sounds of shaped-note singing will fill the air during the 31st session of the National Sacred Harp Singing Convention, an annual celebration in Birmingham that attracts singers of this arcane music from all over the world.
Shaped-note singing predates America itself, but the place most people will have encountered it is in the soundtrack of Cold Mountain, Anthony Minghella’s 2003 movie of Charles Frazier’s Civil War novel. Music director T-Bone Burnett’s choice of shaped-note singing was historically accurate, since the war began only 16 years after the first publication of The Sacred Harp, the hymn book whose name became synonymous with the music itself.
Burnett recorded the singing at Liberty Baptist Church in Henagar (on Alabama 40 on Sand Mountain), where he was surprised by the participants’ eagerness. “We put out a call for everybody to meet at the church,” he said, “and 80 or 90 people showed up from all over the county.”
Those singers weren’t drawn there to work with a Grammy-winning producer. They came for the music.
Such devotion can be traced back to the 1700s in America. The Protestant Reformation had empowered individuals to sing their own songs of salvation, but not many could read music. A musical shorthand developed, in which geometric shapes—a right triangle for fa, a circle for so, a square for la and a diamond for mi—enhanced the regular notation of what was then a sevennote scale.
With literacy of all kinds at a premium, this music was popularized by “singing schools,” wherein people taught themselves how to sing hymns. At the turn of the 19th century, the so-called “Great Awakening,” a nationwide revival movement, created the phenomenon of “camp meetings,” ancestors of the mega-churches of today. Shaped note music was an integral part of the movement, and it spawned a regular ritual called the “all-day singing,” which was just what the name suggests and is still practiced today.
A time traveler from early America would find little to remark upon except modern wardrobes at a contemporary all-day singing. According to the Texas Sacred Harp Association, the morning session starts around 10 a.m. and goes till noon, when there’s an hour break for dinner on the grounds. The afternoon session picks up at 1 p.m. and goes till three or four, and the last portion of the day is dedicated to songs memorializing those singers who have passed on.
The structure of a Sacred Harp sing is as consistent as the format. Singers arrange themselves in a hollow square around the song leader, with tenors on the bottom of the square, backs to the audience. Basses take the left side of the square and tenors the right, with altos at the top of the square facing the audience directly. With neither piano nor tuning fork to set a tone, the group sort of votes harmonically on the key in which it will sing a hymn. When a good relative pitch is determined, the chorale will start off singing just the notes, the fas, sos and las, in a process called solmization, and once everyone’s on top of the melody, the group shifts gears and starts to climb the words of the song.
Here mere language fails to convey the might of Sacred Harp singing. Perhaps because the big blocks of singers create such large chords, perhaps because our ears are unaccustomed to such ancient, unorthodox harmonies or perhaps simply because the minor key holds sway over much of the song book, Sacred Harp moves a room the way tectonic plates can move a city.
One other aspect of this singing imbues it with power, and in a 1991 essay about singing on Sand Mountain, Stephen Parker laid it out straight:
“Moderns forget the proximity of death to our forbears and this music, if it has anything, is full of awareness and readiness for death and grief. It proves a potent antidote to the studied ignorance of modern life with its habit of marginalizing all suffering.” Great country songs convert this quality to fatalism, but Sacred Harp soars over that and finds redemption instead.
Nothing in music is heavier or more exhilarating, not Zeppelin or the Who, neither Wagner in his frenzies nor Beethoven in his throes. Parker limns the feeling so: “The sung words strike my body and stun enough that I lose the beat. But it just goes along, the front bench singers beating it out, some rocking back and forth. The old men, beautiful, are red-faced and weeping with devotion—grief and joy and love that pours out of them like the rain falling over the white dogwoods outside. I realize that I am not needed here; I am wanted, welcomed, empowered, invaded. My skin’s flimsy boundary cannot resist the solvent of this sound. The music is so insistent, so thick here I can only float on it, let it carry me, let it dissolve my arrogance, intoxicate me and send me back to my seat humbled and trembling.”
If you can handle this much thunder in a room, attend one of the free sessions of the National Sacred Harp Singing Convention at First Christian Church, 4954 Valleydale Road, from Thursday, June 17, through Saturday, June 19, 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. For details and directions, call (205) 879-1909 or visit www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~mudws/national.html.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.