Speech 4: How to Say It. The fourth speech of the Toastmasters Competent Communicator program is meant to help me examine word choice, sentence structure, and rhetorical devices.
The tune you just heard was composed by Ananias Davisson in 1816. It’s called “Idumea,” and is one of the most popular tunes in the Sacred Harp tradition.
As haunting as the tune is, it’s the words that bring it to life. The lyrics to the first verse are, “And am I born to die/To lay this body down?/And must my trembling spirit fly/Into a world unknown?” Charles Wesley penned this and three other verses in 1763 — over a decade before the formation of the United States.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, musical performances were serious business, best left, said the performers, to professionals. Sacred Harp began as a way for preachers in the rural South to lead their congregations in song. Many of these people couldn’t read, much less master the complex compositions of men like Beethoven or Schubert.
How many of you have seen the film The Sound of Music? Do you remember the song Maria sings, “Doe, a deer, a female deer/Ray, a drop of golden sun”? This song takes you through a normal scale with seven notes: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do.
In Sacred Harp there are only four notes: Fa, So, La, and Mi. To make it even easier, each type of note is a different shape: Fa looks like a flag, So is a circle, La is a square, and Mi is a diamond. This is where Sacred Harp gets its other name: shape note singing.
The setup is uncommon too. Instead of having a choir that faces the congregation, everyone sits in what’s called the “hollow square” — almost exactly how this room is organized. If this were a singing, you guys here would be the Tenors, here would be Basses, here would be Trebles, and anyone sneaking up behind me would be in the Alto section. As the leader I would stand in the middle, give you your starting pitches, and beat time with my arm to keep everyone together.
It sounds hard when you’re new to it, but in reality this simplified system makes singing accessible to anyone — you don’t have to be able to play the piano, understand music theory, know what key the music is in, or even how to read. I go to singings where four-year-olds lead tunes.
These things are unusual enough, but Sacred Harp has one more unique feature: it’s loud. Tooth-rattling, ear-ringing, foundation-shaking loud. My favorite thing to do on my way to a singing is roll my car windows down and see how far away I am from the venue when I first hear the music. Generally it’s around 100 yards, or the length of a football field.
Why is Sacred Harp so loud? Scholars say it’s a reflection of its folk music roots; others say it’s because singing loud is less tightly controlled, more visceral, and even a little bit fun.
Most of the 800 or so Sacred Harp songs were written in the 17- and 1800s. These were not America’s safest or most prosperous times; thousands wasted away from disease, were slaughtered on battlefields far from home, or bled to death in childbirth. Songwriters and singers used these tunes to remind themselves that something better lay beyond “the coffin, earth, and winding sheet” — they sang of “rivers of delight,” and of “shout[ing] salvation” as they flew to “that eternal world of joy.”
Life is no longer so perilous, but it can be heartbreaking. We face challenges our ancestors could never have imagined; singers use this old, old music to both remember the past and proclaim the future.
I’m not religious, but this music moves me. Looking back at my life, it’s always been there. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series, which I read as a kid until the covers fell off, quotes numerous Sacred Harp tunes. The faded red hymnals at my grandparents’ church have music written with shaped notes. It’s even in my blood. When I told my grandmother that I was singing, she rummaged through a bookshelf and handed me a 1907 copy of The Sacred Harp — it belonged to my great-grandparents.
As I make my way through life now, Sacred Harp is with me. Phrases pop into my head unbidden, calming me on bad days and making good days better. I sing it when I’m happy, when I’m sad, and because it’s just fun. I cherish this tradition, and hope to be in it until the day I die.
I want to leave you with a quote. It’s from author Chloe Webb’s book Legacy of the Sacred Harp, and captures in two sentences why this music means so much to its singers:
“We become one vast choir linked across the centuries. The music of the sacred harp gives wings to the soul, lifting it beyond earthly cares to soar for an ecstatic moment in the realm of the spirit.”