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Sacred Harp music: an old American tradition with the power to revive our culture

by William McGaughey


I happened to watch the PBS documentary “Awake, my soul: the story of the sacred harp” on Twin Cities Public Television on October 18, 2009. Sacred Harp is a tradition of a capella music which was preserved in the American south and which has lately been rediscovered as religious folk music.

It started in 17th century England as a revolt against the Puritan tendency to exclude music and ceremony in favor of the spoken word. Itinerant musicians, starting out in New England, toured the country setting up music schools and establishing congregations. By the mid 19th century, the tradition was well established in the south (mainly Georgia and Alabama). However, Americans came under the sway of professional musicians influenced by Europeans who felt that Sacred Harp music was culturally backward. It violated many rules of composition taught in the schools. As a result, this music was ignored for a century. The revival of interest in folk music in the 1960s brought its tradition to light. Matt Hinton’s PBS documentary will surely aid that process.

Sacred Harp music consists of a collection of religious songs using “shape notes”. These are four of the seven notes in the musical scale. The music books used in Sacred Harp congregations depict each note with a shape (rather than the customary Western musical notation on a scale). The congregation divides into the four parts - soprano, alto, tenor, base - whose singers are seated together as sides of a square. In the middle of the square is a conductor who waves his or her arms in synch with the beats. The singers take turns being the conductor. The congregation throws itself completely in the music and feels a unified presence.

I thought how different this experience must be from the church music that most Americans know. It is totally different from the experience of “pop music” amplified by the electronic media. Here there are no stars. There is not even a performance. Rather it is music to be experienced through direct participation within a group. I saw men and women in their 80s sitting next to teenagers, all having the same experience. They had an inspired look on their face.

What potential there is in this music for recreating communities in America on the basis of a spiritual experience. As the age of mass entertainment reaches a peak and begins to fade, Sacred Harp music remains as a relic of an authentic American culture that has bypassed universities and the mass media. It may be the seed of things to come as we settle back into smaller communities and seek active participation instead of being spectators.


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