Sweet Affliction

Stitchery by Ethel Wright Mohamed (1906–1992)/Courtesy of Hazel L. Wilson and the Ethel Wright Mohamed Stitchery Museum, Belzoni, Miss.

For most of my adult life, I have been fascinated by the old Southern style of shape-note singing—even though for many years I actually knew little about it and certainly never participated in it. It lay at the intersection of several of my personal involvements: the history and culture of the South, religion and choral singing. Yet, for many years it flitted around the edges of my consciousness without impinging on a fairly full life.

My understanding of what the music sounded like came chiefly from occasional recordings by nontraditional singers, folk musicians embracing a tradition of religious song that seemed to hearken back to an undefiled pre-capitalist America, or early music ensembles exploring a style with affinities to the Renaissance. None of these renditions was the genuine article, but for someone consumed with the task of making it as an academic, they would do.

Then came the 1990s and a reasonably established career (I began teaching history at Vanderbilt in 1983), and the time arrived to address unfinished life agendas. One evening at home I found myself thinking regretfully about that lost cultural heritage—and then recalled that some years earlier, I had encountered in a used-book store a book titled The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music, written by a man named Buell E. Cobb. Of all the surviving forms of shape-note singing, Sacred Harp is the most widespread and vital.

Named for a tunebook first published in 1844 and periodically updated ever since, it has withstood repeated assaults from devotees of more polished church music and modern gospel music. While its rugged harmonies and uncompromising texts (death, hell and sin are confronted head-on and without sentimentality) appeal to rather specialized tastes nowadays, those who love Sacred Harp singing have maintained it with tenacity, chiefly through a network of annual all-day singings and two-day conventions supported with a kind of faithfulness seen in modern-day Trekkies.

View a slideshow of David Carlton’s photos from Sacred Harp all-day singing events. Photo courtesy of David Carlton
Click the photo to view a slideshow of David Carlton’s photos from Sacred Harp all-day singing events. Photo courtesy of David Carlton

Cobb’s book contained a list of these singings—one of which, I discovered, was held annually on the first Saturday after Easter here in Nashville. At last!—a possible connection. On the appointed Saturday I duly drove to the designated church—and there they were. There were not many of them, but those who were there were true believers who welcomed me as a potential convert to the cause and sold me my (now well-worn) copy of the 1991 edition of the Sacred Harp.

From that point on, this hitherto hidden world began to open up to me—but it was daunting. Sacred Harp singing may be of a primarily rural-based style, but it is hardly easy to learn. Unlike most standard hymnals, shape-note tunebooks are wider than they are tall, and are laid out with each of the three or four parts on a separate staff. The melody, or the “lead” voice, is actually the tenor line, with altos and trebles above and the basses beneath. Unlike in regular church hymns or gospel songs, the other voices have lines independent of the melody; in the intricate “fuging tunes,” they interweave in elaborate patterns that require close attention.

Singers typically begin by “singing the shapes.” Beginners (and for that matter, tongue-tied veterans) can fake this, but learning the four note shapes—a triangle (fa), a circle (sol), a square (la), and a diamond (mi)—and their relationship to each other in the scale is critical to understanding the structure of the music. The shapes were invented around 1800 as a device to aid the itinerant singing-school masters of the day in teaching people how to read music. While later shape-note systems (such as those used in many gospel hymnbooks) use seven shapes, the early shapes used an old Elizabethan system of solfège in which the major scale starts with “fa” rather than “do,” and is constructed with two “fa-sol-la” sequences, with “mi” closing the octave. Traditional singers have long learned to sing using this method (often called “fasola”), and are accordingly adept sight readers, but the shapes can be a stumbling block to the more conventionally trained.

Finally, while some shape-note music can be slow and lyrical—for instance, those shape-note tunes that have gone mainstream, like “Wondrous Love” and “Amazing Grace”—Sacred Harp singers tend to favor headlong tempos. For that reason a neophyte joining a group of experienced singers can find the experience terrifying. I certainly did—but I quickly knew that I wanted to master it.

At this point, though, I had yet to experience a traditional Sacred Harp singing in full cry. Here, however, a revolutionary new development was opening up the Sacred Harp network to me and many others: the Internet. I discovered an e-mail fasola discussion list and subscribed. Then came the World Wide Web and the Web site fasola.org—a gateway site to all things shape-note. The list is run by a singer in Minnesota and the Web site by a singer in California; indeed, the great revelation of the Internet was that the Sacred Harp network was by no means confined to the Deep South.

As it happened, for some 20 years, utterly beneath my radar, a major Sacred Harp revival had been taking place. Major singing conventions were thriving in New England, New York, the Midwest, on the West Coast and in Great Britain. Even in the South, “traditional” singings were drawing participants from all over the English-speaking world, coming to rural Southern churches as if on pilgrimage. Chicagoans, Portlanders and Londoners were eager for the Southern experience and eager to learn from its traditional guardians.

Carlton takes his turn leading the singing at Liberty Church in Henagar, Ala. Photo: Martha Beverly
Carlton takes his turn leading the singing at Liberty Church in Henagar, Ala. Photo: Martha Beverly.

I learned through the list that one of the major conventions, the United Convention, would be held in September at Liberty Baptist Church in Henagar, Ala., atop Sand Mountain. I got up my nerve, arose early on a Saturday, and set forth to find Liberty Church. Someone had thoughtfully placed signs as I arrived in Henagar, directing me down a rural road.

After several miles I came to the church. It was surrounded by a sea of vehicles, many with out-of-state tags, and I had to park several hundred feet down the road; nonetheless, on quiet, far-from-the-interstate Sand Mountain, I could hear the singing as soon as I stepped out of my car. I walked to the front door and stepped inside. The church was crammed with well over a hundred singers, each part sitting on one side of a hollow square, and the leader in the middle. (All who wish to lead get the chance to do so in the course of a day’s singing.) Many in the room beat time with the leader, and the air fairly shook with the sound. I could only think, “Where has this been all my life?” I had finally arrived at the heart of the tradition.

From there on, the journey has become easy and delightful. I quickly learned that an utter stranger can show up at a Sacred Harp singing and, if he comes prepared to sing and shows respect for the tradition and those who have carried it on, he will be welcomed with open arms. Theology and politics are checked at the door; liberals and conservatives, Christians, Buddhists and atheists all commune in the hollow square.

I was at first careful not to divulge my hoity-toity Vanderbilt connection, but it eventually leaked out—and then everybody wanted to talk football. I’m no longer a stranger in these Alabama churches, and a world that I otherwise would have scant acquaintance with is now full of old and dear friends.

Recent documentary -Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp height=Since then, too, Sacred Harp has become more visible to the outside world. A group of singers gathered at Liberty Church contributed several tunes (including the chilling “Idumea”) to the soundtrack of the movie Cold Mountain—making music that stunned popular music critics from The New York Times on down. Sacred Harp influences are seeping into indie rock; a recent recording of Sacred Harp-themed popular music includes tracks from the likes of John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, Elvis Perkins, and punk-rock band Cordelia’s Dad. The Fleet Foxes, a Seattle band, also claim inspiration. On the classical side, the ensemble Anonymous 4 has released two best-selling explorations of early American religious music, filtering shape-note harmonies through their own early music-movement sensibilities.

Not that Sacred Harp is likely to become “popular,” however; the music and the texts remain their frequently forbidding selves, poles apart from most popular music. But Sacred Harp nonetheless speaks to many in our time. The music has an astringent power that can catch the casual listener short, even if he would never make it a staple of his iPod.

Those willing to immerse themselves in an all-day singing (even the atheists) find it a worship experience unlike any other. The tightly packed space, full of people blending their voices in sometimes spine-tingling harmonies while flashing smiles of recognition across the square; taking one’s turn as leader, with all parts focused on you; the ceremonies of remembrance that link singers, past and present, together in a great chain of being—these are rituals of solidarity and transcendence that our culture of spectators sorely lacks, and sorely misses.

Best of all, Sacred Harp is not a closed subculture, but one open to all who desire it. I wish I’d known that sooner.

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