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December 23, 2003

New York Times

The Mount Pleasant Home Primitive Baptist Church on the outskirts of Birmingham is a long way from Hollywood, literally and figuratively. So it was a little strange one Sunday to hear a group of people in the tiny bare-walled church swapping stories about Anthony Minghella, the Oscar-winning director of "The English Patient," who was pronounced by one elderly Alabamian that day to be "a pretty decent guy."

A woman near him agreed, but as she loaded her paper plate with lunchtime chicken casserole, she added, "I do wish they'd hold the premiere in New York instead of out in L.A."

Her preference was only practical: she and a handful of others would soon fly to the premiere of the new big-budget movie directed by Mr. Minghella, "Cold Mountain." They would also hear their own clear, strong voices booming from the theater's speakers as they watched the movie for the first time alongside the director and two of its stars, Nicole Kidman and Jude Law.

When this Civil War drama opens nationwide on Christmas, the hope among these singers is that it will accomplish something more meaningful than a glamorous trip to Hollywood. They hope it will introduce their kind of music a powerful and beautiful but relatively obscure form of a cappella choral singing known as Sacred Harp to a broader audience.

The music, also known as shape-note or fasola singing, has been waiting a long time for that attention. The style of singing, whose rudiments stretch back at least to Elizabethan England, flourished in Colonial New England and in its present form took deep root in the rural South, where it is still sung today in four-part harmony. But many of its practitioners whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents sang it in little churches and town squares throughout the South fear it could die out. So they are waiting eagerly to see whether the use of Sacred Harp music on the movie's soundtrack, released on Dec. 16, could do for their music what the soundtrack for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," the Coen brothers comedy, did for rural blues and bluegrass. (The "O Brother" album unexpectedly sold more than five million copies and won the album-of-the-year Grammy in 2002.) More

Posted by acapnews at December 23, 2003 10:02 AM

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