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Sacred Harp: the punk rock of choral music

Courtesy of Dan Harper

Sacred Harp singing is considered to be one of the oldest forms of American folk music. It dates back to the 1700s, to a choral style that developed in the churches of colonial New England, but eventually took root in the South. It’s a participatory tradition, which means that singers perform for themselves, not for an audience. Today, Sacred Harp is experiencing something of a renaissance, some even characterize it as the punk rock of choral music.

An increasing number of music lovers have been rediscovering this singing style across the country and abroad. In Berkeley, a Sacred Harp group formed about ten years ago and is slowly attracting more and more members.

The group usually meets in Berkeley, but today there are about 60 people crammed in a small wooden room at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House in San Francisco. They’re sitting around a hollow square where each side represents a voice in a four-part harmony: bass, tenor, alto, and treble.

Hannah Blair is an artist from San Francisco. She says its hard to explain what Sacred Harp is.

“I have been working on a short explanation of this ever since I got this tattoo,” she says, pointing to the notes to a hymn called “Africa” on her left arm. It’s written in shape-notes, rectangles, diamonds and triangles. Blair says she “realized the very next day that I was going to spend the rest of my life explaining what Sacred Harp is to people.”

Sacred Harp is one of the oldest forms of American folk music. It was developed in the churches of New England more than 200 years ago. The brash singing style quickly died out as music scholars of the day dismissed it as too crude for church. The tradition eventually took root in the rural south where it is still sung to this day.

Since the 1980s, Sacred Harp has experienced what some call an “urban revival” in cities all over the country. But even as the music catches on with a new generation of singers, Blair still finds it hard to explain its appeal without adding a few disclaimers.

“I’m not religious … We sing in church, but it’s just in a church, it’s not like at church. I do feel sometimes like it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure in San Francisco.”

It’s a guilty pleasure because the words are steeped in Evangelical Christian theology.

Dan Harper is a minister at the Unitarian church in Palo Alto. He says that the words are a stumbling block for a lot of people singing the music, but he also says that even if you have a problem with the religious lyrics of Sacred Harp, that doesn’t have to stop you from singing it.

“There’s a lot of people who sing all kinds of music and they have no interest in the words at all and they just like the music,” he explains. “So you think of a lot of American standards right out of the American songbook and the words are totally meaningless. I mean, ‘Moonlight over Vermont’? Who the hell cares about ‘Moonlight over Vermont’? But we sing it because it’s a wonderful song. So I think a lot of people approach Sacred Harp that way. You don’t really worry about the words.”

And the singing itself can be a hard sell. Sacred Harp is loud, the harmonies are unusual, and not quite in tune. But music lovers of all walks of life are finding ways to relate to the centuries-old tradition.

Blair says the first time she attended the weekly singing in Berkeley, it took her back to her past when she was in a metal band. “We were a really noisy band. I did a lot of screaming,” she recalls.

While they sound completely different, Blair says the two musical experiences share something in common. “Singing as loud as I could, and running out of air in a lot of the songs and then just the experience of making music with a bunch of people who are really excited to be there and also singing as loud as they could. It was a really intense experience to have with a bunch of strangers, for sure,” says Blair.

It’s an intense experience for Harper too, but for a different reason. “It’s partly because anyone can do it. My friends who are into punk rock are all over it because then I tell them it’s all about D.I.Y. music and that gets a lot of people, too.”

Like with punk rock, you don’t have to be classically trained or be exactly on pitch to sing Sacred Harp songs. They’re written in shape notes, a notation system that was designed to be easier to sight-read so that anyone can pick it up and sing.

Back in Berkeley, Cassie Allen, a singer from Rome, Texas, is conducting a singing school to an enthusiastic Bay Area crowd. Singing schools are part of the inclusive tradition of Sacred Harp and shape note singing. Their purpose was to teach congregations to sight sing so every member could take part in the service.

“Part of Sacred Harp singing is blending,” Allen says. “We don't care how loud you sing, really. We don't care if you sing off tune. We don't care if there’s not a lot of tone. But most of the time when you break up in parts like that, you tend to try and blend together.”

Sacred Harp is sung in four-part dispersed harmony. That means that every vocal line can exist independently from one another, but when sung together they create a unique texture of voices.

As Allen explains, Sacred Harp is ultimately a communal experience – it’s about blending all these different voices together. She says it’s not about how you sing. Hannah Blair says, its also not about what you believe. “Part of the tradition is that it doesn’t matter what your politics are, what your beliefs are, who you are what you are doing,” she says. “It’s rare that you find a group that all you have to do is want to be a member and you are.”

Maybe that’s why the Sacred Harp tradition travels so well outside of its southern home. It welcomes anyone who wants to do it. Blair says that she will always be part of a larger community, no matter where a singing takes place. The rough sound and the religious tone might take newcomers some getting used to, but the experience of singing – loudly – in four-part harmony with a bunch of people is hard to resist.

This story originally aired on July 19, 2012.

Crosscurrents Music