Friday, March 03, 2006

Singing from the Sacred Harp

Since it appears to be the fashion to announce our FGC Gathering workshop choices, allow me to invite you to consider #36, Singing from the Sacred Harp which I am co-leading with Robin Fox. As I reread the extended description of the workshop, I realize that it is a pretty good summary of why I love to sing this music and how it has reenergized my spiritual life. Here's an edited version of the short and extended descriptions:

Singing from the Sacred Harp. The Sacred Harp is a vigorous, four-part, a cappella hymn singing tradition that many Friends find to be a powerful spiritual practice. New singers will learn and experienced singers will grow in their appreciation of the Sacred Harp. Emphasis will be given to connecting the Sacred Harp to Quaker practice.

(P/T, D-I) Percentage of time: Worship/worship sharing 10; Lecture 5; Discussion 5; Experiential 80

The Sacred Harp is a living tradition of four-part acapella hymn singing. Begun in New England more than 200 years ago, the tradition took root in the southern United States and has been sung continuously ever since. Sacred Harp singing now occurs regularly in many communities outside of the South and is experiencing a rejuvenation and renaissance. The tradition is characterized by its full-voiced vigor, democratic participatory ethic, unique harmonies and system of musical notation, eclectic religious imagery, and strong sense of historic continuity and community.

The Sacred Harp is also the name given to the most popular collection of shape note songs where the notation of music is printed on a standard musical staff but in four shapes (triangle, oval, square, and diamond) instead of the more common oval. The Scared Harp we will sing from was first published in 1844 and most recently revised in 1991. It contains more than 500 songs expressing a wide range of musical styles, poetic imagery, and theological perspectives, though the texts are predominantly evangelical Christian in flavor and orientation. The book is available for $20 by mail order through Quaker Books at FGC and at the Gathering. Participants should acquire a copy prior to the workshop.

This is a participatory workshop open to new, beginning, and experienced singers alike. While there will be brief periods of silent worship to begin and end each session, most of the workshop and worship will take the form of singing. We will have worship-sharing each day, but there will be relatively little time for individual, personal expression as compared to other workshops. Nearly all of the activities will be done with the entire group.

The principal objectives of the workshop are that:

1. New singers will learn the rudiments of Sacred Harp singing and its traditions;
2. Experienced singers will grow in their skill and appreciation of the tradition;
3. All singers will be led to deeper understanding of how Sacred Harp singing fits into their lives as Friends.

Early in the week, we will cover the rudiments of shape-note singing: the names of the shapes; the major and minor scales; how to sing the shapes; how to beat time and lead a song; how to sing vigorously and with an open heart; etc. As the week progresses, there will be less explicit instruction and more learning by singing. The leaders will take care to progress to more complex or difficult songs at a pace that will be comfortable for most singers, especially newer ones.

Woven throughout the week and the singing will be very brief lectures or discussion of certain non-musical aspects of the Sacred Harp tradition, especially its history and practices, in order to help Friends place the tradition into its historical, religious, sociological, and musicological contexts. This information is helpful to help deepen participant's appreciation of the singing, but is of secondary importance and will not predominate the workshop.

Each day, we will have worship-sharing during which time Friends can ponder and share with others how Sacred Harp singing (or music in general) has affected their spiritual lives and lives as Quakers. On the second-to-last day, we will hold a "memorial lesson" to remember Friends and family who have died, are shut-in, or are otherwise in need of prayer.

No specific preparation is necessary, but Friends who are unfamiliar with Sacred Harp singing may wish to learn a little about it before enrolling in the workshop. If Friends can arrange to attend a Sacred Harp singing in their home communities before the Gathering, it will be very helpful preparation. The times and location of local singings can be found at Participants may also wish to visit that site to locate additional information and resources, including recordings that they may listen to before the workshop.

I have felt called to share and teach Sacred Harp singing with Friends for many years, ever since learned to sing at an afternoon session at the 1987 Gathering. I knew from the start that Sacred Harp singing was going to be a part of my religious and spiritual life as a Friend, and that has proven to be true. I have a strong voice and a gift for teaching and have used them to help other Friends to learn and enjoy Sacred Harp singing.

In the experience of singing itself, I have felt the power of God knitting a diverse group of individual voices into a single, harmonious choir. I believe that the texts of the songs in the Sacred Harp which are eclectic but heavily influenced by Biblical texts are an important resource to Friends who, in general, tend to be unfamiliar with the Bible. By learning these texts through singing, and internalizing their powerful imagery and language, I believe God is helping Friends rediscover and reclaim the Biblical narrative as their own.


Liz Opp said...


I admit that I am puzzled by the idea that the Sacred Harp can be connected to Quaker practice.

I understand that there is power for you, personally, in this form of singing; and that verses of Scripture may be opened to some Sacred Harp singers... But beyond that, and the fellowship that singing can bring to a group, much like Northern Yearly Meeting's Nightingales, I don't get it.

Any chance you could write more about the connection between Sacred Harp and Friends...? Or is it just one of those things that is hard to articulate and something I'd have to experience myself?

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Robin M. said...

When I was a girl up in the mountains of California, the very elderly pianist for a group I belonged to had her own music for all the regular songs that she played. It had funny shapes instead of the sheet music that I recognized, and I knew that she had to ask the owner of the local music store to transcribe any new songs into the notation that she could read. It wasn't until about a year ago that I started to suspect that maybe what she used was shape note music, and now your description confirms that idea for me. But I don't remember hearing about any shape note singing around there, just this one lady. It makes me wonder now how she learned it, and where she grew up.

Mary Rose O'Reilly's description of shape note singing in The Barn at the End of the World was most intriguing, enough that your workshop is on my short list of possibilities, well, and because it would increase my chances of meeting you.

Paul L said...

Liz: All good questions, and you anticipated most of the answers.

We often have the experience of mystical unity while singing that Quakers describe as a Gathered Meeting; it's more than "mere" fellowship. That is something that is hard to articulate and you have to experience to really understand.

Sacred Harp singing also demonstrates in a beautiful and concrete way the kind of unity-in-diversity that Quakers strive for, both in the singing experience and in the larger Sacred Harp community world-wide.

And there are a lot of other aspects of the Sacred Harp community that parallel Quaker practices but are more vibrant and effective, including intervisitation, non-heirarchial (sp?), decentralized human leadership under the acknowledged leadership of the Spirit, a method of instruction & leadership development, respect for continuity and tradition while adapting to new times, and dinners on the grounds that our Quaker potlucks can only dream about.

I consider all of this to be "Quaker practice" in a broad sense; I certainly have felt it deepen my understanding and appreciation of our Quaker traditions (as well a desire that we realize its potential more fully).

And Robin: I'd love to see the piano teacher's sheet music: a number of southern denominations' hymnbooks (Presbyterians, Baptists, e.g.) could be purchased in shape-note versions through at least the late 1940s and maybe after that. But I've never seen one and am fascinated to know how shape notes would be used or helpful for a piano player -- especially since instruments are strictly verboten in the tradition I've sung with and read about (including pitch pipes!). The point of the shapes is to train the voice in instantly recognizing intervals and making sight-singing much easier (when the notes are written in shapes, at least). I have never thought about whether the shapes could help the fingers as well as the voice to recognize the intervals.

I'd be very happy if you'd take this workshop, though I'm sure we will meet each other one way or the other . . . . Mary Rose and I belong to the same meeting and we have sung together often, and I often use portions of The Barn at the End of the World in workshops. And the co-leader, Robin Fox, is her partner to whom the book is dedicated.

Liz Opp said...


Thanks for this explanation. I totally get the advice, "You have to experience [it] in order to understand."

Maybe if my workshop selection is a dud, and I'm not not wanting to attend extended worship, I'll poke my head into #36 Sacred Harp--seeing that you allow part-timers and drop-ins.

Robin, one way to identify Paul is to look for his red socks and Birkenstocks... though I don't recall if that is only his foot attire for winter. Perhaps he changes to white socks in summer. smile

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Linda said...

Hi Paul,
I'm so glad you are offering this workshop. I met you last year at Gathering at the afternoon shapenote singings (I'm a tenor from California, if that jogs your memory at all). Anyway, Quakers and Sacred Harp seem a natural pairing to me, and I'm glad that more Friends will have the opportunity to become part of this tradition. And I get to sing 5 hours a day for a week. Yippee!

Robin M. said...

Alas, Paul, the woman I mentioned was about 90 years old when I knew her, 25 years ago. I doubt that her sheet music has survived.

In the end, I signed up for the workshop on the Blessed Community in James. But I will come to an afternoon sing. And one of these days I will finish my post on how bluegrass gospel music brought me to Christ. Sort of.

The other reason I feel like I know Mary Rose a little bit, even though we've never met, is that Peter Crysdale, one of my Quaker heroes, talks about her.

And I know Linda! The Quaker world is so small.

Kenneth said...

As I went through the workshop list, when I came to yours I knew I would go to the Gathering this year. (I no longer go automatically. I only go if there is something specific calling to me.) I was in one of your Shapenote workshops years ago. I can't remember which Gathering it was, but it was easily the most spectacular workshop experience I've had.

I've never made any attempt to reconcile or connect Sacred Harp with Quakerism--just as I don't try to justify contra dancing, gardening, or knitting. They each feed me, in different ways, and that is all the reason I need to do them.