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June 17, 2011

Keeping alive archaic shape-note harmonies


About 200 people attended the first day of the 32nd annual National Sacred Harp Singing Convention at First Christian Church on Valleydale Road today, keeping alive a tradition that dates back centuries. They sang from the Sacred Harp Songbook, first published in 1844 and revised four times since.

"When I sing I'm carrying on a tradition of great-grandfathers," said Mark Davis of Pearl, Miss., chairman of the convention.

Throughout the 1800s, the hauntingly harmonious sounds of sacred harp a capella singing echoed in churches throughout the South. That style was kept alive in rural churches, especially by Primitive Baptists, who never adopted instruments.

It's called shape-note singing because the hymnal uses shape notes, noteheads in the shapes of open and solid squares, diamonds, triangles and ovals. Many of the singers say the shapes make it easier to read and sing the music in four-part harmony.

The distinctive sound of sacred harp comes from a cacophony of voices singing rough-edged harmonies with a rugged texture like the walls of an old log cabin. "Finding something that has roots that deep has a lot of appeal," said Buell Cobb, author of "Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music." He added: "This is a living tradition. It's not just a relic."

Gerald Godfrey, a retired minister of music who still plays organ at Christ United Methodist Church, said the jarring style of sacred harp sounds like nothing else. "In a typical church choir, the melody's in the soprano," he said. "In sacred harp, tenor takes the melody."

Sacred harp never died out in Alabama and has experienced a worldwide renaissance. A group of five people from the United Kingdom sang today in the convention. "People either fall in love with it or don't like it at all," said Rebecca Over, from Surrey, England.

"My husband hates this," said Rosalind Oldham of Derby, England. But he paid for the trip to Alabama as a present for her 40th birthday because she's in a choir that sings sacred harp. "It is loud," she said. "There are no bits that are soft. To sit and sing it, I get a great deal of pleasure from that. To stand in the middle and lead a song is amazing. You're hit by a wall of sound." Read more.

Posted by acapnews at June 17, 2011 12:00 AM


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