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August 23, 2005

Sounds of sacred harp

San Antonio Express (TX):

Emmie Morris, sitting behind a folding table on the Community Center stage, read from an index card into the public address system microphone. "Esther Huckaby from Fort Worth," Morris said, as two women beside her wrote feverishly. "No. 270." Huckaby, 69, made her way to the area created by four facing sections of chairs. Two of the sections consisted of men. One section was all female. A fourth was mixed. Like Huckaby, all of them clutched their own copies of the same rectangular, blue, bound hymnal.

At the 141st East Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention earlier this month, folks from around the country came to do their part in keeping alive an obscure and distinctive form of a cappella gospel music that dates back 200 years and which, until recently, was rarely heard outside rural Southern churches. But here in Henderson, Hollywood hasn't changed Sacred Harp, a musical genre that's handed down like a family heirloom or discovered like a treasure by outsiders.

"My great-grandfather," Huckaby told the crowd, "was chairman of this convention in 1909. He was not a very important man. But I suspect that being chairman of this convention was very important to him." She nodded at the front row of men sitting in front of her. One began singing syllables. Others joined in quickly. Within seconds, the group was singing No. 270, the traditional hymn "Confidence" in the distinctive style of Sacred Harp four part harmony, using only the four syllables "fa," "sol," "la" and "mi."

Sacred Harp songs are white, traditional spirituals that merge the disciplined style of rudimentary musical instruction with the fervor of Old Time religion. Most of the songs are performed in a minor key, and though usually short, the arrangements are complex. Last year, Sacred Harp music went global when it was performed on the stage of the Academy Awards. "It has a nostalgic, haunting quality about it," said Bill Giesenschlag of Snook, a retired Blinn College history professor. "In a cultural sense, this is the last outpost of the Old South."

"It's not a religion," said John Etheridge of Baker, Fla., a major figure in the last revision of the official hymnal. "It doesn't favor any particular denomination. But when you're singing, it's a religious experience." The song Huckaby led was over in two minutes. As she returned to her seat, Morris was announcing the next singer and song. Within 10 seconds, the group was belting out the next song, "Gospel Trumpet," led by Katie Mosley, 20, of Lockhart. And so it went. By the end of the convention's two days, just over 150 songs had been performed in a no-nonsense ritual of fellowship and family.

Sacred Harp also is known as "shape note" singing because it relies on the shapes attached to the sheet music. The style was created at the end of the 18th century in New England to help teach students who couldn't read music. It soon spread to the South and to East Texas. There are two types of shape-note singing. Seven-note is practiced in some churches, but four-note singing is the most common. In four-note Sacred Harp, "fa" is denoted by a triangle, "sol" is a circle, "la" is a square and "mi" is a diamond. Most songs begin with the choir "singing the notes," followed by lyrics. The seating is specialized, too, with tenors sitting across from altos and baritones sitting across from sopranos. This is called "the hollow square."

Sacred Harp songs come from one of two books. In Texas, most singers use the "The B.F. White Sacred Harp (Revised Cooper Edition)." The book is crammed with hundreds of songs bearing names such as "Lord, Show Pity," "Zion's Ship" and "If Christ Be In My Arms."

At a Sacred Harp event, singers sign up in advance to lead songs. They are then introduced, as Huckaby and Mosley were, and quickly take their place in the center of the hollow square. Most singers hold the book in one hand and conduct with the other. In the crowd, singers will also wave their arms or hands in time, to help them stay in sync with the group. Before nearly every song, several singers will repeat the hymn number to ensure that everyone will be, literally, on the right page. A baritone or two on the front row usually sounds out a starting note as the song begins. And after each song, there is inevitably a voice from the crowd, typically an older man, that says, "That was a good song!" or offers up a "You did good!" to the leader.

The sense of family runs strong through the convention, and several generations of singing families will attend. Don Ross, an appellate judge from Texarkana and a former convention chairman, met his wife, Diane, when they were teens at the 99th convention, held in Panola. Their sons grew up in the tradition, began leading songs as toddlers and continue to do so as adults.

A new wrinkle, however, has been the increasing popularity in larger cities and other counties. There are now regularly scheduled singings in 30 states and in at least a dozen countries. In Texas, weekly practices and monthly singings are held in Houston, Dallas and Austin. The large city singings are gathering converts younger, without rural roots to the music.

That's how Kevin Lee, 21, first heard about Sacred Harp. He tagged along when a friend attended an Austin singing to earn extra credit for a college class. "When I heard it," Lee said, "I fell in love with it. It's such powerful music. I love the lyrics. I love how the singers all work together." James Mason, 23, also from Austin and a fan of early American music, first heard it on a CD collection of old songs. He now attends weekly practices and monthly singings in Austin. "It's so raw and wild," he said. "When you're singing, everyone is right there. It's raucous. It's intense. It's so emotive. It really resonates with me."

Posted by acapnews at August 23, 2005 9:32 PM