An odd-duck singing style with one foot in the grave

Sacred Harp singing, with roots in 19th-century rural South, blends hymns and folk traditions. A Seattle group is leading a revival of this music, with its dark poetry and steely tonalities.
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The Sacred Harp songbook includes notes in four shapes, not typical ovals

Sacred Harp singing, with roots in 19th-century rural South, blends hymns and folk traditions. A Seattle group is leading a revival of this music, with its dark poetry and steely tonalities.

Two dozen singers, ranging in age from their 20s to 70s, sit on folding chairs in a 'ꀜhollow square'ꀝ formation. All face inwards toward each other, with each side cordoned off for basses, tenors, altos or trebles. After choosing a song, a man wearing a plaid shirt and suspenders lets out a long, nasally Faaaaaaaaa. No sooner have the singers found their pitch, they launch into "Soar Away," a fugue that loops through the lyrics: 'ꀜI'ꀙd soar away above the sky/I'ꀙd fly/And fly/To see my god above/I'ꀙd fly, to see my god above.'ꀝ The lyrics tangle together as each section sings into the middle of the square, creating a triple forte, stereophonic wall of sound.

This is Sacred Harp music at the Woodland Park United Methodist Church, one of a few venues where this primitive religious style is performed. With melodies reverberating off heating pipes and echoing down the linoleum hall, the sea-foam green church basement can hardly contain the haunting beauty of the dozens of hymns being sung from the 100-year-old songbook from which the style takes its name.

Sacred Harp is an odd-duck singing style from the late 1800s that has one foot in the folk tradition, one in the church, and considering its dark poetry and haunting melodies, yet another foot in the grave. The Sacred Harp songbook is a collection of 573 four-part folk hymns, first published in 1844 in Georgia.

'ꀜIt'ꀙs very unrefined, it isn'ꀙt pretty,'ꀝ says Reed Schilbach, 63, who is responsible for bringing Sacred Harp to Seattle in the 1970s. 'ꀜI like it because of the sort of authenticity of that; the sense that what you'ꀙre hearing is someone who'ꀙs letting themselves be a vehicle for the music.'ꀝ

Schilbach is sitting at a coffee shop near her Ballard home, looking through newsletters from her original group, the Sacred Cow Harmogenizers with photographs of the scruffy singers with long hair and beards performing at the inaugural Folklife Festival in 1976. She first heard Sacred Harp at the Sweets Mill folk festival in California in the early 70s and immediately fell in love with it. Upon returning to Seattle she ordered some songbooks from the publisher in Brennan, Georgia, and began teaching herself its a cappella hymns with the help of old field recordings made by folklorists Alan Lomax and Mike Seeger.

In Sacred Harp, Schilbach explains, 'ꀜA lot of it'ꀙs about death. And the expectation of something after death is something that'ꀙs been comforting people for a long time, both how to deal with dying and how to live one'ꀙs life knowing about the inevitability of death — they'ꀙre pretty high on the list of the great questions.'ꀝ

Sacred Harp is often referred to as 'ꀜprimitive,'ꀝ a description owing as much to its design as its steely tonalities. The hymns were originally taught to rural Southerners with little music training, and in order to make sight reading easier, a collection of shaped notes were developed, hence its alternate name, 'ꀜshape note singing.'ꀝ A typical page from the Sacred Harp has a music staff peppered with triangular, square, and diamond shaped notes, as well as the oval that'ꀙs predominantly used today. Each of these four shapes relates to a syllable in the solfege system: fa, sol, la, and mi, enabling singers to quickly learn the melody of a song, before repeating it with the lyrics.

Schilbach says she has hundreds of favorite songs, but her preferences narrow when she considers her 'ꀜfuneral list.'ꀝ 'ꀜOne of the social sports of the sacred harp singer is seeing that others know what you want sung at your funeral, because there tends to be a sort of funereal theme that runs through a lot of these. So when I look at it that way, number 122 ['All Is Well'] is at the top of my funeral list.'ꀝ

This light-hearted approach to such plaintive music is one contrast you'ꀙd notice at a singing. Imagine witnessing grandmotherly figures belting out lyrics that, on more than one occasion, describe humanity as 'ꀜtimorous worms.'ꀝ 'ꀜWe find it amusing that we are like this,'ꀝ Schilbach says, about this conflicting imagery, 'ꀜbut it'ꀙs not a joke. We have sung to people as they died.'ꀝ

The high point of the year for Sacred Harp singers is arguably the annual 'ꀜall-day singing,'ꀝ an event where participants take on the Herculean task of singing for an entire day, covering as many as 120 songs. Past all-day singings in Seattle swelled to 180 participants with Sacred Harp enthusiasts arriving from England, Michigan, Calgary, and Alabama. This year'ꀙs Pacific Northwest chapter all-day singing happens Feb. 20-21 from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm at the Mercer Island V.F.W. Hall, 1836 72nd Ave. S.E. The free event will be a rare chance to witness the power of the Sacred Harp, and maybe to participate.

Hark! Hark! My Lord and Master'ꀙs voice,

Calls away, calls away!

I soon shall see 'ꀓ enjoy my happy choice,

Why delay, why delay?

Farewell my friends, adieu, adieu,

I can no longer stay with you,

My glittering crown appears in view,

All is well, all is well!


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