This is a book whose time has come round, to the relief and happiness of some, to the wistful perplexity, perhaps, of others. Sacred Harp singing, of which I am fan, not to say an addict, is a tenacious, distinctly American musical tradition that has, in this exhaustive and fascinating study, been as codified as it can be while still retaining its right to defy definitions. Its author and participant observer is ethnomusicologist Kiri Miller, Assistant Professor in the Department of Music at Brown University, who received her PhD from the Harvard University Music Department in 2005 with a dissertation on Sacred Harp singing, “an American vernacular hymnody tradition.” She teaches classes on the songs and the singing of Sacred Harp, which is also known variously as Christian Harmony, shape note singing or Fasola.
Miller has done a scholarly job of detailing the history and many streams of Sacred Harp, from its European to its African American antecedents to its current
Southern American and “yankee” branches. She has interviewed many singers and advocates of the genre and used their own unique manner of expression, including the very odd emails written in a bizarre
Southern religious vernacular by people very conscious of their folk heritage and their difference from the city people who, like me and Miller, want to understand and perhaps own a piece of the vast Sacred Harp crazy quilt. For make no mistake about it – there is no final blueprint for Sacred Harp, no well-set pattern. Some wish there were, others glory that there is not – some believe there is and would defend the template to the death, others are sure that Sacred Harp is as open, as pluralistic, as American religion and folk culture combined.
It started with hymnbooks devised to teach illiterate folks how to read music. The “shapes” were recognizable and easy to remember. It grew into a cherished tradition of “singings” that always include praying and dinner on the grounds. It is democratic because anyone who can sing can lead the songs, and everyone takes turns. It does not take place in a circle (that politically correct shape so beloved of primary school teachers and group therapists) but in a square. In the middle is the “hollow square” where the leader, self-chosen, guides others in his or her favorite numbers.
My first experience of hearing Sacred Harp singing happened in Henegar, Alabama, one of the bastions of the “real” tradition. It made me think I had never heard singing before, that I had walked into a corner of heaven, that the building itself must have been constructed in such a way as to cause certain astral vibrations to infuse the music, that this was a religion in itself, that this was something I could not, having heard it once, be foolish enough to live without ever hearing again. The expression “wall of sound” could in Henegar that day be expanded to walls, ceilings, cathedrals of sound, yet all emanating from a relatively small number of singers seated decorously in a modest country church.
So no wonder that culturally alienated intellectuals, who chased the folk revival like a skittish White Rabbit, “discovered” Sacred Harp and longed to embrace it. They could learn the tunes, but could they put the heart into it that is imbued by “ignorant hillbillies” who grew up with the curiously short verses and often dolorous lyrics (e.g,“Lord while we see whole nations die, our flesh and sense repine and cry; Must death forever rage and reign? Or hast Thou made mankind in vain?”)? That is a question that Miller seeks to examine, if not fully answer. Can something called “sacred” belong to people who feel the emotional pull of the modal tunes, the intellectual tickle of the Victorian lyrics, and the power of the shared celebration of song, yet who profess no specific belief in deity? Can people who secretly think that the traditional singers are all members of the KKK glean from the musical efforts of these primitive denizens some semblance of the spiritual fervor that seems to hover in the very air when they give voice?
One can almost wish that the questions had been left unasked, but while there are minds and ideas, there will be questions. To take Sacred Harp as read, as sung, may not be possible for those of us who are drawn to examine and analyze. Yet if we sing with joy, are we also not in the choir? Can we not, with sufficient application, make our way into the hollow square? Miller sums it up this way:
“…each singer lives out the contradictions, obligations, and intense pleasures of being ‘a stranger here below’ who also belongs to a far-flung community, creating a common authentic experience out of difference and a sense of home out of transience.”