Museum revives sacred harp singing

Published 9:27 pm Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Pioneer Museum of Alabama will host the second annual Sacred Harp Singing from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Saturday. Sacred Harp singers from the Wiregrass and River Region will participate.

Those who just want to know more about the centuries-old form of music are invited to come listen and join in when they feel comfortable in doing so, said Jerry Peak, museum director.

“J.C. Harden used to hold monthly Sacred Harp singings at the museum but, after his death, we got away from them,” Peak said. “But Sacred Harp singing is a part of who we are as Southerners, and we wanted to bring back the singings at least once a year.”

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The first Sacred Harp Singing at the museum attracted about 45 singers and between 60 and 70 visitors.

“A lot of people don’t know about Sacred Harp Singing and those who were hearing it for the first time were really amazed,” Peak said.

The title Sacred Harp Singing is a bit misleading because there is no harp involved. In fact, there are no instruments. Sacred Harp was first sung in England, then in colonial New England. From there Sacred Harp migrated to the South were it took root.

“More and more people are becoming interested in Sacred Harp or shape note singing and partly because they are hearing it for the first time in movies like ‘Cold Mountain,’” Peak said.

Sacred Harp singing uses a system of printed shapes rather than standard music notation to help untrained singers learn how to read music, said Alice Sundberg, who along with her husband, Ken, organized Saturday’s singing.

Sacred Harp Singing has been described as singing so powerful that you could stand up and walk on it.

And Sundberg agrees that Sacred Harp is shout-it-out singing. She said that some people come to hear the sound of shape note singing while others are more interested in the history of the singing form and the hymns.

“Shape note singing was taught in singing schools throughout the South before and after the Civil War,” Sundberg said. “The teachers often had no musical training. But the music fit the way people back then liked to get together for singing and social time.”

Sundberg said for Sacred Harp singings, the singers form a hollow square with the tenors, who sing the melody, facing the leader.

“To the leader’s left are the bass singers, the treble singers are to the leader’s right and facing the tenors and to the back of the leader are the altos,” Sundberg said.

Different singers take turns leading the singing but singers often mark time with the music as they sing.

“You don’t have to have experience to join the singing or enjoy the singing,” Sundberg said. “So, we encourage singers and those who are ‘just interested’ to join us.”

Admission to the Sacred Harp Singing is free for those who bring a Cooper Songbook. Otherwise admission is $6 for adults, $5 for senior adults and $4 for students.

The Sacred Harp Singers bring their favorite dishes to share at lunch. Those who would like to join the “dinner on the ground” type lunch are invited to bring their favorite dish and share in the fellowship that always abounds at Sacred Harp singings, Peak said.