When a Joyful Noise Has Four Corners

It is almost guaranteed that Sacred Harp singers will be the ones who wake the dead at the Second Coming.   

The surge of more than a hundred singers thundering a capella harmonies to Grace Church’s rafters last Saturday at 8:30 in the morning at least roused torpid college students stumbling in amidst a crowd of perky older adults. Krispy Kreme donuts and Starbucks coffee were provided as stimulants to get Covenant’s choirs and Dr. Alicia Jackson’s New South class in function, but it was the invigorating choruses—and rollicking rhythms unfamiliar to Presbyterian ears—that did the waking.

“We like the room to be alive!” exclaimed David Ivey, a 6th generation Sacred Harp singer and dedicated organizer of singing squares across the Southeast.

“It was really powerful standing in the center and having the waves of different parts sing over me,” said Dr. Alicia Jackson, Covenant History Professor and initiator of Saturday’s event.

“It was like a herd of rhinos came trampling over my soul,” gushed Susan Cherones, a new-found disciple of the tradition. She claims that 45 minutes of listening to singing square was her only medicine during the first hours of recovery after a major operation: “it got me through without any pain medications. The charged harmonies streaming through the speakers certainly gave her strength, but the 75 signatures on the card sent by her “extended family” and the dozens of “get-wells”  received from Sacred Harp singers across the country also did their part.

“The names of the dead and the shut-ins are announced at every singing square meeting,” she says, and along with providing neighborly support, “we usually we sing a hymn in their honor.”  

Cherones, a Cloudland Canyon resident and riotous force in the alto section, fell in love with Sacred Harp singing, like many new-comers, after its cinematic debut in the 2003 Academy-Award nominee, Cold Mountain. For others present, the singing square has been the cornerstone of their Sunday mornings since childhood, as well as that of their Appalachian ancestors who used the original Sacred Harp hymnal in 1800.  

In 1766, Protestant choir directors on the East coast began to incorporate shape notes into their church’s hymnal to spruce up the discordant sounds from their congregation. According to David Ivey, Sacred Harp singers do not care about absolute pitch, but other means are used to impose order.  Singers are seated in a four-section square and written, four-part hymns resulted in the soaring unaccompanied harmonies still heard today. Instead of the usual Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Tis of the Solfege system, shape notes are printed in triangles, circles, rectangles, and diamonds that correspond to a Fa-Sol-La-Fa-Mi pitch. First, participants will first belt the syllable of each note of the tune, while the leader provides timing.  On the second time through, they will sing the lyrics. Particularly during the more rousing choruses, singers will keep a steady beat by swinging arms in time to the rhythm, looking like God’s army on the march. Singers sit in a four-square structure where altos sit opposite  tenors and sopranos face basses so that each section can easily register their pitch and watch the director in the center. Standing in the center can be  sonorously overwhelming, and traditionally, is an opportunity first-timers can experience along with the old-timers.

As the number of each new hymn is called, a new member of the congregation will volunteer to direct the group, regardless of their age or experience. Often, one will see children beating the time, leading grey-haired veterans who know the lyrics by heart. New-comers are enveloped into the community and expected to learn by jumping in. Covenant junior, Kaesha Russell, says that she appreciated the inclusiveness of the experience: “Nobody cared what anybody else sounded like, but just all came together in this tiny church to sing for God alone.” However, freshman Abigale DeGraff also expressed that, “It’s incredibly frustrating. There is a lot of information thrown at you at once. I’m a perfectionist and it’s hard to get it all down.”  

While dozens of shape note songbooks were printed during the nineteenth century, the Sacred Harp became a lasting favorite in the singing schools. Over time, as instrumentally-accompanied, European hymn traditions infiltrated American churches, shape note singing was primarily “preserved in small, rural communities; it was ideal for these churches because it did not require buying instruments,” says Dr. Jackson. Singers today universally acknowledge that singing square traditions—particularly a ritual mid-day potluck—are indeed sacred and must be maintained.  

Susan Cherones says, “You can enjoy singing from the hymnal swinging like a monkey from a tree, but it’s not Sacred Harp if you don’t follow the form.”

Today, the tradition has persisted not only in the white-washed churches of Sand Mountain, but, in what Cherones calls a “fuelled insurgence,” in major cities across the U.S. and even around the world, with Poland, Ireland, and Hong Kong hosting camps and singing schools.   Even last Saturday, seasoned visitors had driven from Alabama, Missouri, and California to attend.  A weekend-long road trip is not an unusual feat for most dedicated Sacred Harp singers.

Kathy Williams from Cullum, AL has been singing Sacred Harp music for 57 years since the day “my daddy took me to a singing school when I was 10.  My dad was Southern Baptist, but my mother grew up singing Sacred Harp.” She tries to attend singings about two or three weekends every month.  Her dedication is rooted in the home she has found in “such an embracing and loving group.”  

“What happens in the square,” says Cherones, “you fall in love with people.” However, she was a little skeptical when first invited to the singing square. “All I knew about was the snake-handlers and UFOs on Sand Mountain, and my first experience wrecked me….I could not find out what they were singing and turned the book upside down!”  Despite Cherones’ first impressions, however, Sacred Harp “changed my life.”

“They’re my family,” says 28-year old Nicholas Thompson with a Southern lilt. “You could be black, white, polka-dotted, transgendered, but you put everything at the door.  It’s wonderful fellowship.” Growing up in the Southeast, Thompson had known about Sacred Harp all of his life, but finally was able to go to music camp when a friend provided him a scholarship. Now, he says, “Oh, I have to be able to do it!”

Cherones agrees that it is the unique community that allows one to extend a neighborly hand past the usual fences of “politics, religions, and football: Usually I would say, ‘I’m not going to get to know him, he’s voting for Sarah Palin. How can I love them so well when they watch Fox News?’ We are so divided, but without division.”  

Music certainly has a way of breaking traditional boundaries. Dr. Scott Finch, music professor and choral conductor at Covenant explains how in Revelation, “Each people group brings the best of their tradition to the Lamb…each tradition can reveal God’s handiwork.” He found that for students unacquainted with the Sacred Harp community, the experience “can teach us a lot about other’s traditions and ourselves. It makes us ask what in our traditions are we lacking and what do we enjoy?”

Dr. Finch says that, “Coming out of the singing square, I really appreciate the stamina, robust singing, and the lack of inhibitions the singers have. They’re here because they want to be here.  It is very convicting to us.”  

As for his thoughts on the event last Saturday, Finch says that despite a tiring 6-hour stretch of joyful noise, “I thought it went really well. I imagine we will do it every other year, as the experience is one worth repeating.”  

While some might wait two years to rattle the church windows or maybe even until the Second Coming, other students might be interested that a singing quare is held at St. Elmo Fire Hall every third Thursday of the month. It can be assured that they will be welcomed with open arms. Perhaps they, too, will be able to claim, like Susan Cherone and so many others, that “it changed my life.”