Shouts of Sacred Joy

by Laura Clawson


I sing Sacred Harp. You probably don't know what that means. It's possible you know that The Sacred Harp is a book of shape-note music, and you might know that shape notes were developed around 1802 to go with an already-existing solmization, in which the notes of a major scale were sung as fa sol la fa sol la mi fa. Shape notes are exactly what the name implies: musical notation in which the note heads aren't all round. Fa is a triangle, sol a circle, la a rectangle, and mi a diamond, and shape-note singers almost always sing the syllables that correspond with the notes of a song before they sing the words.
In any case, shape-note music was developed in the northeast, but mostly survived in the southeast. And in the southeast, it mostly survived because of The Sacred Harp, which was first published in 1844 and has been revised four times, with appendices added on five other occasions. Most of the songs in The Sacred Harp are in four-part harmony, with the melody in the tenor (or lead) and the treble and lead parts sung by both men and women in different octaves. They are sung a capella, and loud.
Maybe the volume is what gets me. Maybe it's just the only time I allow myself to be loud, to pour everything in me into the biggest noise I can make. Just imagine singing as loud as you can, so that your stomach muscles strain and you're almost shouting and then finding that you can barely hear yourself, because the sound you make is dissolved in the sound of more than a hundred people doing the same thing.
Or maybe it's the sense of history it gives me. There is something remarkable about knowing that I am doing something for fun that people were doing for fun when the old churches of New England were built, when the taverns and houses that are now historical landmarks were new. It is immensely appealing to know that I could go to something that has happened every year for over 140 years and maybe keep going back every year until I die. Both my body sitting there and my voice coming out of me are swallowed up, one by the long tradition of singers and the other by the voices of the singers around me.
As Buell E. Cobb, Jr. has written, "At a Sacred Harp session when the singing has reached a certain level--when the singers respond wholly to the music--it is almost as if they are only receptacles, vessels for something age-old which lives again through them. As the old songs well up through and around them, the singers submit to the effects of the music with a kind of awe." And all I can say, even though I'm an occasionally anti-religious agnostic, is "amen."
But what I can also say about this music is that it's fun. In total, it can be a really profound thing, but most of the time what you're immediately conscious of is having fun. It's loud, it's fast (sometimes), it's slow (other times). It's dozens of people stomping their feet and singing music with such powerful rhythms that each beat of a rest is palpable. It's religious music like you've never heard it, because it is popular, not classical, music.

The 22nd Annual New England Sacred Harp Singing Convention will be in Middletown this year. On Friday, October 3, singing will be at South Congregational Church from 7:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. On Saturday, October 4, singing will be at the Wesleyan Chapel from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. It is quite likely the loudest unamplified, non-mechanical noise you will ever be part of.