Let Everybody Sing
Deep in the antebellum bowels of Southern history, there emerged a style of gospel music called the Sacred Harp. Designed so untrained singers could sing by sight from hymnals, it produced an otherworldly, earthshakingly loud brand of music. But who knew it would become one of the South’s most potent cultural exports? To folks who grew up in the tradition, Sacred Harp is religious expression. Others view it as “a cappella heavy metal.” But both sides come together to make wild and joyful noise — and to eat fried chicken and deviled eggs. Join us on a visit to the Georgia State Sacred Harp Singing Convention. It might challenge a few of your assumptions about the South.
The three places I spent the most time as a child, in ranked order:
Oh? You’ve never heard the term “singing convention”?
A singing convention is, essentially, church minus the sermons. Music only. In my youth — the 1960s and ’70s in the Appalachian foothills of North Georgia — I remember every county had its own singing convention, one day a year when the best singers from churches all over two or three counties would gather in a school auditorium or even a courthouse to sing all day long and, of course, have a hearty “dinner on the grounds” come mid-day.
Erica Hinton with Elijah at a singing in Barnesville, Georgia; dinner on the ground at the Georgia State Sacred Harp Singing Convention, 2015.
All these years later, I have developed a theory about singing conventions. I believe they represented refuge for certain people — folks like me who could barely sit through a sermon, squirming at the threats of hellfire and brimstone, but who still wanted to touch the divine, whatever that was. Singing conventions were for folks who preferred that music help them reach the divine.
The hard-shell Baptist doctrine upon which I was raised plays very little part in my worldview these days. But that church music draws me still, and those singing conventions in my memory were its purest expression. Hundreds of voices coming together in rough harmony, most all of them untrained except perhaps for a weeklong “singing school” at some church. No “program” to dictate the day’s events. The “president” of the local singing convention would just call on a singer from the crowd to stand before the choir and lead the song of his or her choice. After a moment of hymnal browsing, you’d hear something like, “Please turn to page 36 …” A piano player would roll through the first few bars of the song, and off they’d go, making a joyful noise. You never knew what you would hear next.
These Southern singing conventions thrived because the untrained singers, who had to sing from written music, could learn how through a technique called “solfège,” to use the music-school word for it. Plainer folks called it shape notes. You know the system. You’ve heard it a thousand times.
Do. Re. Mi. Fa. So. La. Ti. Do.
The notes of the standard major musical scale, each given its own name — and its own shape, like so …
Anyone could do it, as long as someone’s voice or an instrument could sing out the root note of the key in which the song was written, because “do” moves with the key. No matter the key — C, B-flat, G-sharp, whatever — “do” is the root note. By recognizing the shapes and hearing that root note, you could sing any piece of music you picked up.
At some point in my gospel music-packed childhood, my father — who taught shaped-note singing schools and helmed the Gilmer County Singing Convention for a long while — unearthed an odd-looking old music book. It was in landscape mode, like an art book, with the title “The Sacred Harp” inscribed on its cover. He told me he’d gotten the book from his father, who had been born in 1873.
“This was the way the old people did it when I was growing up,” I remember him telling me as he thumbed through the cracked pages. Sacred Harp had the shaped notes I knew so well, but not all seven of them.
Fa. Sol. La. Mi. Only four.”Fa” covers the root note and the fourth up the scale, “sol” the second and fifth, and “la” the third and sixth. “Mi” covers the seventh note only. Strange, I thought.
And the songs had weird names. The song I knew as “Amazing Grace” was called here “New Britain.” Dad sang me a little. The melodies sounded odd to my ear, and I pretty much lost interest at that point. I figured it was a dead or dying tradition.
So imagine my surprise last March when I ventured to the Emmaus Primitive Baptist Church in Carrollton, Georgia, near the Alabama border, to attend the annual Georgia Sacred Harp Singing Convention. I discovered that Sacred Harp, which I thought was an arcane corner of Southern musical tradition, had spread its tentacles quite literally around the globe, snagging people of all sorts.
Judy Hauff, Minnesota State Sacred Harp Convention 2011.
This year’s Georgia Sacred Harp convention will happen the final weekend of March — “the fourth Sunday and the Saturday before,” to use the parlance of the Sacred Harp folks — at the Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Georgia. If you venture there expecting to meet mostly Baptists of the primitive sort, you will meet a few, but you’ll be downright floored by the other folks you meet.
People from all over the world will converge on this tiny church for two days of nothing but singing and food. Germans. Irishmen, Irishwomen, Irishchildren. People with varying levels of melanin. Jews. Gentiles. Muslims. Even atheists, for God’s sake.
They will form themselves into what they call the “hollow square” — trebles on one side, altos on another, then tenors, then basses. Then a leader will stand up, call for a certain song by number, and all those voices will converge in the open space in the middle.
And together, they will create an earthshakingly joyful noise. Like this.
Jenna, Chattahoochee Convention 2011.
dis-perse: to cause to break up and go in different ways : send or drive into different places
When my father taught singing schools using the seven shapes, as opposed to Sacred Harp’s four, he wanted his pupils to understand each of the note shapes. So, before allowing them to sing a song’s lyrics, he made them sing the song using only the names of the notes.
In other words, instead of singing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” you’d sing (if you were a soprano, for example), “So-la-dooooooo, mi-do-miiiiii, re-doooooo, la-soooooo.” When the four parts sang together, at any given moment, you might have the sopranos singing “so,” while the altos were singing “ti” and the tenors “re.”
Listening to the words they sang, you’d hear cacophony, nonsense. But listening to the tones of their voices, you’d hear strict harmony — assuming the singers could hit the right pitches. Even if they were off a bit, close enough was good enough.
At a Sacred Harp singing convention, they follow the same path. Every song begins with the choir singing the notes — fa, sol, la or mi — and then they sing the lyrics. What you hear feels harmonious, but in a much more primitive way. It sounds raucous — like something from your deepest past, generations deep.
That’s because it is from your deepest past. “The Sacred Harp” was first published in America in 1844, but the music’s roots run centuries deeper in various European traditions. Studying the history of Sacred Harp can take you down a musicological rathole, which we will avoid for the purposes of this story. You can learn about it yourself just by talking to folks outside any Sacred Harp singing anywhere (and they are everywhere), or you can watch filmmaker and singer Matt Hinton’s 2007 great documentary, “Awake, My Soul: The Story of Sacred Harp.” (Or if you’re in Georgia, it’s not that hard to talk to Hinton himself. You can find him most weekdays at one of his two Bell Street Burritos joints in Atlanta, or you can find him and his whole family at a Sacred Harp convention somewhere nearly every weekend.)
Matt Hinton, Georgia State Convention 2015
But not even Hinton’s documentary had been able to explain the sound of Sacred Harp to me. I got that information from a woman named Mary Brownlee, after the singing ended last March at Emmaus Primitive Baptist. Brownlee is a South Georgian whose roots in the Sacred Harp tradition go very deep. In her soft drawl, she helped me finally understand what I had been hearing all morning.
“I'm from what we call the South Georgia Sacred Harp Convention,” she told me in the churchyard. “This is the Georgia state convention. I'm more familiar with the South Georgia people. I've only been coming here about 20 or 30 years to the big state convention.”
I didn’t stop her to point out that after three decades, she probably didn’t need to think of herself as a rookie anymore.
“We grew up with two books in our home, a bible and a Sacred Harp book,” she said. “My uncles and aunts – and I had a lot of them – they would come and visit a lot. When we were children, our grandparents and their sons and daughters, my mother and all of them, that's what they would do. This was the only kind of music that we heard when we were growing up.”
Mary Brownlee, Georgia State Convention 2015
I told Brownlee about my own upbringing in a different offshoot of the shape-note tradition. She replied by telling me that people with truly deep roots in the Sacred Harp tradition, like her, referred to the music I grew up with as “new-book singing.”
I asked her why Sacred Harp singing sounded so distinctive, so unlike anything else.
“It’s dispersed harmony,” she said flatly. “Do you understand what that is?”
I did not. So she continued.
“Almost all music is written with a strong melody line,” she said. “We call that the lead line. Then, the three parts that harmonize with that, usually they are written just to harmonize. And they do. With this dispersed music, each line is a tune unto itself. It is not written just to harmonize with the lead. It's a tune unto itself. That's why they call it dispersed harmony.”
The light came on. Four separate melodies, sung simultaneously. Four different songs, really, but each with the same words. Which makes it an even more welcoming tradition than the one I grew up with. If you don’t like the treble line of a song that much, then sing one of the other three. Nobody cares.
“Sacred Harp has something special to it,” Johnathon Kelso, a Sacred Harp devotee who shot the photographs that accompany this story, told me. “You can just walk in, and everyone is on the same level. Everyone is able to stand up and lead a song. No one is gonna make fun of you. No one is gonna tell you you're doing it wrong, because the whole class will lift you up and sing together and cover your mistakes. This, to me, is what heaven should look like.”
Everybody in the whole round world wants to sing. And there is a special joy in singing together, with others. But most human beings forgo that pleasure because they believe they can’t sing a lick. Cruel teenagers tell them, “God, you sing so bad. Please shut up!”
Therein lies the magic of the Sacred Harp’s dispersed harmony. It was designed from the get-go to welcome those people, too.
Jessica Kelso, Georgia State Convention 2015.
That magic is how you meet somebody like Eva Streibeck, a tax accountant from Bremen, Germany, at a Primitive Baptist church outside a small town in the deep South. She’s been singing Sacred Harp for only four years.
“A friend had heard some indie rock-band tune that's called ‘Wayfaring Stranger,’ and she looked it up on YouTube to find out what kind of music that is,” Streibeck tells me. “And so she came across Sacred Harp.” (For the record, “Wayfaring Stranger” is No. 457 in “The Sacred Harp.”)
Streibeck had met this friend at a workshop for Bulgarian throat singing. “We were talking during the break. I said, ‘What I like particularly about this kind of singing is that you can sing it really loud.’ She said, 'OK, if you like to sing loud, I have something for you.’”
So Streibeck found a Sacred Harp singing in Germany and went.
“I was hooked from the beginning,” she said.
I would later learn it’s not hard to find a Sacred Harp singing in Bremen, Germany. In fact, there’s one every Thursday. The headline on the Bremen Sacred Harp group’s website says, “Sacred Harp ist a cappella Heavy Metal.”
Sacred Harp is a cappella heavy metal.
I’m not sure Mary Brownlee would get the connection, but I do.
The global Sacred Harp community is bound together by a little website called FaSoLa.org. On it, you can find regular Sacred Harp singings in nearly every U.S. state and in towns across Australia, Germany, Ireland, Japan and the United Kingdom. Want to sing Sacred Harp in New York City? First Saturday of every month on the Lower East Side. Want to sing it in Seattle? Second Sunday of every month. In Tokyo? The third Thursday of every month.
Waiting in line for some fried chicken at the midday dinner, I met Jesse Karlsberg, a young Jewish man who grew up in suburban Boston. He hits a Sacred Harp convention nearly every week. He was earnest and thoughtful as he attempted to answer my questions about his motivations.
“I grew up in a Reform Jewish family, so I guess I don't have the typical religious profile for a Sacred Harp singer,” he said. “And I think I didn't really start singing for religious reasons. I think I was just looking for ... .” He pauses. “In a way, it hit all the nuts that I was missing in other musical contexts. And then I sort of started to realize that there were also these wonderful people that I could get to know. And then really, in a way, through that, it started to have more of a meaning to me in a sort of a spiritual way. So I guess, I mean, I'm not a Christian. I don't, you know, go to church, except that I go almost every weekend to sing Sacred Harp.”
Jenna, Georgia State Convention, 2015; Adrian Eldridge, Shoal Creek Church, Cleburne County, Alabama, 2015.
All this cacophonous harmony seems to possess the power to bring people together, washing away divides enforced by any particular religious and moral code. For me, I think it taps into a primal need, a need common to every human, a need deeper than our own inventions:
Everybody needs to sing.
All the Sacred Harpers I’ve talked to share one of two common traits:
- They grew up in the tradition, singing Sacred Harp music their whole lives, or
- They had a lightning-bolt experience.
Judy Mincey of Calhoun, Georgia, contracted the Sacred Harp bug about 20 years ago. She’d been singing her whole life — “light opera to renaissance,” she said. But she remembered her first Sacred Harp singing as if it happened yesterday.
“I sat down on the right-hand side on the third bench from the back and got hit by lightning,” she said. “This incredible, unearthly harmony that just poured over you. It was just so striking, so different from anything else in modern music. It had that deep, primal, early sound that just really knocked me over.”
I asked her if she thought the primal nature of the sound was what attracted people from so many places and stations.
“It's amazing to me how this attracts so many different kinds of people,” she said. “That's one of the charms of it. The diversity is just amazing. We have everybody from every possible socioeconomic scale. We've got everything from housewives who've never worked outside their homes in their lives to triple Ph.D.’s. It's something in your heart. It's not here.”
She stopped and tapped her forehead.
“It’s here,” she said, tapping that place on your chest where your heart’s supposed to be. “It does something for you that nothing else can, and the community that has grown up is just so supportive and loving. It's just an amazing organism that's growing across the country.”
Eugene Forbes and Jeff Sheppard, Camp FaSoLa, Anniston, Alabama, 2011.
Anyone who had a heart would want to believe that the force of this music alone is strong enough to bring folks together in ways unencumbered by social and religious conventions. But you can’t deny that all of these people from everywhere are singing about a fellow known as Jesus. If you’ve listened to enough mountain music to know the old Stanley Brothers’ chestnut, “Jacob’s Vision,” you’ve heard a Sacred Harp song. It begins, at least in Dr. Ralph Stanley’s dialect, with, “Haaaaaa-lee-loo-yer to Jesus … .” And if you’d like to learn precisely how many times the name of Jesus is invoked on the pages of “The Sacred Harp,” you may count them for yourself at The Sacred Harp Concordance. (The folks at the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association are very serious about their work.) But in that same concordance is a treasure box of rich, strange, archaic turns of phrase that speak directly to Southern history, the way hardscrabble Southerners looked at life and death.
“Fly fearless through death’s iron gate …”
“To the land I am bound …”
“I’m sorry to leave, I love you so well … ”
It's a hard thing to figure out: how Sacred Harp attracts so many different kinds of people, from near and far away, people who might have no interest at all in its religious roots. I asked our photographer Kelso, who freely identifies as a Christian, why he thought the music could cross those lines.
“I had a punk-rock and rock-and-roll background, and I had just a loud, boisterous nature. Couldn't sing a lick to save my life, and I didn't feel like I sounded pretty,” Kelso told me. “The thing that I love about Sacred Harp is that when you walk into that church door, you have people from all different kinds of walks of life. You have people from different denominations, you've got people that are young, people that are old, people who have grown up loving the Lord their entire life, and you have people that do not know the Lord, who have rejected the Lord. Strong contrast, from any way you look at it.”
Jesse Karlsberg had told me: “Once I started to meet people, you just realize that everyone really does love and care about each other for being here, and that manifests itself in all kinds of ways. It just builds relationships. A lot of people say that Sacred Harp singers are like family to them, and we've certainly sung with and stayed with singers all around the U.S. and in England and in Poland and Ireland.”
Some people come from places in Alabama, where Sacred Harp never died, and their faith is deep. Others come to Sacred Harp because it sounds like a cappella heavy metal. The only inescapable fact is that the music binds them all.
Karen Edwards, Chattahoochee Convention, 2015.
I wondered if people wanted to sing so badly, to sing so loudly, that they could put aside their differences and build a community. So I decided to look for someone who might talk sense into me, who might tell me, No, city boy. This is about religion only.
I scanned the churchyard for someone who looked the part, someone who looked like the old men hanging out around the water well, smoking cigarettes, outside the church after Sunday services when I was a kid. It didn’t take me long to spot Henry Johnson. He was perfect. He wore a necktie. White hair, cut short in a way that suggested a military background. A worn copy of “The Sacred Harp” under his arm, a hard pack of cigarettes obvious in the pocket of his short-sleeved dress shirt. His tobacco-cured voice was as gravelly as Sam Elliott’s.
I asked Henry this: “People seem to have no concern about one's denomination or doctrine here. Is that a fair statement?”
“That's a fair statement,” he replied, and it sounded like the voice of God. “We may care about it …” He paused and raised his eyebrows, showing me that he actually did care about it. Then he finished.
“But we don't discuss it at a singing.”