Sacred Harp singing is the largest surviving branch of traditional American shape-note singing. Our local area is well represented in Sacred Harp singing, thanks to the Meridian Herald organization; Dr. Steven Darsey, the Meridian Chorale director; Dr. Fred Craddock, founding preacher laureate, emeritus of the Meridian Chorale; and Emory University's Candler School of Theology.
While "harp" is simply an old word for a hymnal containing music, "Sacred Harp" refers to "The Sacred Harp," a book first published in 1844 by Harris County-DeKalb County teacher, B.F. White, and his student, E.J. King.
The soundtrack for the Civil War film, "Cold Mountain," recently presented shape-note singing to large audiences who had never before heard the haunting harmony ensemble of voices - unaccompanied, stark and rugged, in a fusion of the Southern folk and spiritual styles.
Craddock is confident as he comments on the generational legacy of music from "The Sacred Harp."
"People are going to remember this music who have never heard it before," he said.
Sacred Harp singings are not performances, per se. Every singing is a unique event because people in each assembled group and audience participation are different at each event. Typically sung in four parts, Sacred Harp tunes are spirited folk tunes, hewn into history by Colonial farmer-homesteaders, immigrants, slaves and fishermen.
The singers sit in a hollow square formation with one voice part on each side, all facing the center so they can see and hear each other. Visitors are always welcome to sit anywhere in the room to participate as listeners. No musical experience is required.
The totally democratic tradition was derived from Colonial "singing schools" whose purpose was to enabled untrained singers to sight-read music without having to understand key signatures. Shape-note music became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in the South. Music was an integral part of camp meetings and revivals, all-day singings with dinner on the grounds, conventions and primary elections, family reunions, or just the hospitality and fellowship of neighborly get-togethers. Although Sacred Harp is not affiliated with any denomination, it is a deeply spiritual experience for many singers.
Darsey, in commenting on the experience of Sacred Harp singing said, "The folk hymns from 'The Sacred Harp,' combined with Fred Craddock's prophetic exhortations enable the hard-wrought faith of our forbearers to carry us into a new call for the coming of Christ."
An old-time Southern shape-note singing will be held at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 1 at Old Church in Oxford. The church, established in 1841, is the same vintage as the tune book, published in 1844. Admission is free. Seating will be first come, first served. Billed as a Southern Folk Advent, the pre-holiday program will feature the Meridian Chorale with folk hymns from the historic "Sacred Harp" tune book, interwoven with brief folk-style sermons by world-renowned preacher Fred Craddock, and bluegrass/gospel music by the Sonny Houston Band.
Sacred Harp singing preserves traditional ways from earlier times but is also a living art in which composers add new songs. "The Sacred Harp," 1991 Edition, contains new compositions along with texts and tunes from previous centuries. There is a wealth of information by the Georgia Humanities Council, University System of Georgia, who made "The Sacred Harp" one of their GALILEO projects.
Linda Reynolds is a columnist for the Citizen. She is interested in stories about historical landmarks in Rockdale and Newton counties. If you know of a special story, place or event, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 770-483-7108, ext. 252.