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January 18, 2008

Give Me That Old-Time Singing

TIME Magazine:

One Saturday in January, a well-dressed man strolling Manhattan's recently gentrified Lower East Side unexpectedly found his way blocked by 35 people singing on the sidewalk. The lyrics were somber--"Then shall the dust return ... to God who gave it"--but the delivery was joyful. Asked what he thought was going on, he ventured, "I dunno. A funeral?"

Actually, it was a resurrection. The singers--housewives, ex-punkers, Evangelicals, atheists, Jews and Buddhists waiting for their usual venue above a local bar to open--were devotees of a Christian four-part choral style called Sacred Harp (the name refers to the human voice and a songbook published in 1844). Once America's dominant religious music, it was eclipsed after the Civil War. By 1960, say scholars, as few as 1,000 people clustered in the Deep South knew the style.

Yet today there are some 20,000 devotees across the country singing songs like Pisgah and Weeping Sinners. The website fasola.org lists a "singing" near you on almost any weekend. A documentary, Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, is airing on more than 120 public TV stations, and an album is in the works featuring alt-folk god Sufjan Stevens, alt-country hero Jim Lauderdale and (!) Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones.

This kind of thing has precedent. In 1997 the album The Buena Vista Social Club hit big with a sound defunct even in its native Cuba. In 2000 the old-timey twang of the Coen Brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? grabbed a handful of Grammys. How do you revive an art form? A few hints: Be weird--but worthy.

Nothing is weirder than Sacred Harp. Its favored subject matter--the pilgrim, the grave, Christ's blood--is stark; its style--severe fourths and otherworldly open fifths--has been obsolete for more than a century. Its notation, in which triangles, circles and squares indicate pitch, looks like cuneiform. Yet it exudes power and integrity. Five people sound like a choir; a dozen like a hundred. It is one of the most democratic choral forms: no audience, no permanent conductor--just people addressing one another and God.

Almost every revived American folk-music form was once recorded for the Library of Congress by musicologist Alan Lomax. He taped Sacred Harp in 1942 and '59. Unlike other finds such as Leadbelly, it failed to spark during the 1960s folk revival, but musicologists were infected. Now the form had imitable LPs and an academic beachhead.

In the early 1990s, punk rockers, says singer Tim Eriksen, "were looking for that kind of intensity in other music." Eriksen's band, Cordelia's Dad, and other postpunks seized Sacred Harp and exported it to trendsetting places from Northampton, Mass., to Portland, Ore.

Bob Dylan made a pilgrimage to Woody Guthrie. Decades later, Southern Sacred Harp royalty generously embraced the wild-eyed newcomers--many of whom were nonbelievers--in what Awake My Soul co-director Matt Hinton calls "red-state, blue-state harmony."

T-Bone Burnett, who shaped the sound of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, did the same on Anthony Minghella's Civil War film Cold Mountain. Minghella hired Eriksen to sing a non-Harp song but was lured to Harp mecca Henagar, Ala. One result, Idumea, plays hauntingly over a battle scene--and won a new batch of fans. "I went in because of Jude Law but left with Sacred Harp," says New Yorker Anna Hendrick, 22.

After 45 minutes on the sidewalk, Hendrick and the other Manhattan harpers move inside and dig in. Singings can last two days. Today the group logs just three hours. "Join in a song in sweet accord," advised one of the afternoon's tunes. And so they did.

Wow! Shape note singing is becoming cool. Here is the link to The Lower East Side Shape Note Sing who meets every 1st Monday and here's a web site with a list of all the "singings" nationwide. Fun!

Posted by acapnews at January 18, 2008 12:04 AM

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