A Small Taste of Heaven: Sacred Harp

I’ve always loved music, and have always been a singer — even at the age of six, when I couldn’t carry a tune and my grandfather shook his head and told my grandmother, “She’ll never be a singer.”

After participating in choirs for 15+ years, I’m proud to say that I can certainly carry a tune. Some of the best singing I did was when I was a member of my alma mater’s choral program — I had an amazing director and extremely talented and dedicated fellow singers. I count the time I spent with those choirs as some of the best times of my life.

In other words, I didn’t think it could get any better. After I graduated, I joined a local group, but it just wasn’t the same. I wanted to find a group of people who were passionate about the music they sang, believed in the stories those songs told, and took joy in singing together.

Sacred Harp basics

I won’t get too much into the historical or technical aspects of Sacred Harp here, because there’s a lot of it. Instead, I’ll give you the bullet points:

  • Invented in New England as a way to teach people to sing. It fell from popularity there, but gained a solid foothold in the more rural South.
  • Instead of the traditional seven-note system (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do), Sacred Harp works on a four-note system (Fa, Sol, La, Mi).
  • Each of these four notes corresponds to a shape: triangle (Fa), circle (Sol), square (La), and diamond (Mi).
  • And instead of the traditional four vocal parts (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass), there is Treble, Alto, Tenor, and Bass. Tenors always have the melody.
  • Singers sit in a square, all facing inward. The middle portion, known as the “hollow square,” is where the song leader stands. Singers keep time by waving their arms up and down in time with the song.
  • There is no musical accompaniment — the “sacred harp,” or the voice, is the only instrument used.
  • A designated member of the group “keys” each song by singing out the first note for every voice part. Then the group goes through the song once on syllables before singing it on words.

It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the bare bones of the art.

Why I love Sacred Harp

Sacred Harp is passionate, loud, fervent, joyful, heartbreaking, and ultimately triumphant. It gives me goosebumps, makes me cry, laugh, and marvel at the beauty of heaven and earth.

This past weekend, I attended my first big Singing: over 100 people crammed into a little church for two days of Sacred Harp singing.

This is not a timid art form — the only dynamic is LOUD, and the people who have been singing Sacred Harp their entire lives can practically peel the paint off the walls. Their sound is focused and sharp. You can never out-sing a lifetime Sacred Harp singer.

I’m a really reserved person by nature, not prone to shouting or being silly, or outwardly passionate about many things. Sacred Harp gives me a chance to be passionate, to sing loudly, sing fast, and enjoy myself.

Sacred Harp is first and foremost a form of worship, and the writers and composers who created the music believed very fervently that although life on earth was hard and dangerous and scary, there was a place “on the other side,” and that when the time of death drew near, Jesus and the angels would be there to lead them to their final home. I’m not a religious person, and am not swept away by grand sermons or conversations about faith, or reading The Bible.

In truth, it’s very rare that I feel close to God. But when I sing Sacred Harp, I feel like God is close enough that I could touch Him. He feels real, tangible, accessible, and kind. I feel joy and comfort, and am safe in the certainty that God does exist, and that He and heaven are merely waiting for me to make the final journey.

The sounds of Sacred Harp

Sadly, a lot of the video recordings of Sacred Harp Singings are taken by amateurs — the footage is often grainy or shaky, and the volume of so many voices singing at top volume often overwhelms many video cameras’ speakers.

But in a way, that’s part of the tradition. Sacred Harp is unpolished, unrestrained, and joyful.

I have many “favorite” songs, several of which I got to lead this weekend (standing in the middle of the hollow square with all those voices surrounding you is one of the highlights of attending a Singing). But the song that had the biggest impact on me was undoubtedly “Prospect”:

“Why should we start and fear to die?
What timrous worms we mortals are!
Death is the gate to endless joy,
And yet we dread to enter there.

The pains, the groans, the dying strife,
Fright our approaching souls away;
And we shrink back again to life,
Fond of our prison and our clay.

Oh if my Lord would come and meet,
My soul would stretch her wings in haste,
Fly fearless through deaths iron gate,
Nor feel the terrors as she passed.

Jesus can make a dying bed
Feel soft as downy pillows are;
While on His breast I lean my head,
And breathe my life out sweetly there.”

I tried to find the best audio recording of this song I could:

(Notice that they go through the tune on the syllables first, before launching into the lyrics.)

If you want to see some decent-quality video recordings (to see how the singers are keeping time), check out PLBrayfield’s Youtube channel. She’s got a ton of videos.

I love Sacred Harp, and I’m so glad that I found it. It’s not for everyone, but I hope that I have been able to convey at least a little bit how it makes me feel, and why I believe it’s the best music there is.

What thing (music or not) makes you feel glad to be alive?

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4 thoughts on “A Small Taste of Heaven: Sacred Harp

  1. Prospect is a favorite of mine as well. Both the treble and the tenor are great tunes, and you can really dig into the “timorous worms” part. I usually choose verses 1 and 3.

    1. I was lucky enough to get to sing all four verses at the big singing I went to a couple weeks ago. I started crying around verse 2, and was pretty much embarrassing myself by the end of the song. It was so beautiful, though, that I couldn’t help myself. I’m going on vacation in Colorado in a couple weeks, and I’ve already scouted out a local group to sing with while I’m there.

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