Sacred Harp Singing from the Great Smoky Mountains

This is a recording made by some Primitive Baptist young people in the church at Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Sacred Harp (also known as "shape-note") singing originated in England and the United States in the 18th century. The English style is called "West Gallery" music from the place in the church where the loft was located. In recent years, singers have revived the tradition in English and now there is a lively interchange of information and singers back and forth across the Atlantic.

To be honest, this music lies close to my heart. My paternal grandparents came from the mountains and among their possessions was an old "Christian Harmony." However, many, many people without my personal musical inheritance love this music. 

Sacred harp music is sung with a straight tone and the melody is always in the tenor line, often doubled an octave higher. It is modal and features open fifths and octaves. Some of the best-known early composers were William Billings and Daniel Read. Homophonic verses are often combined with a "fuging" refrain with the parts entering successively. The words are often drawn from the hymns of Isaac Watts and other evangelical divines, as well as home-grown poets. After the "reform" of church music in the northeastern US, shape-note singing continued in the rural South as a regular part of Primitive Baptist life. It was "rediscovered" during the folk-music revival of the 1960s. There is a strong emphasis on salvation and the glories to come, glories that must have been a great hope in the hard life of the rural farmers. 

Originally the settings only had three parts, but many collections added an alto line in the early 20th century, probably because of the influence of four-part gospel music. The singers face each other, seated around a hollow square. The simplicity of Primitive Baptist churches lends a fantastic resonance. The notation has note-heads in different shapes for fa, sol, la, and mi. Singers will first "sing the shapes" before proceeding to the text. How did people learn what to do? Singing school, of course! Held in the evenings in a church or school building and progress through the rudiments of music outlined at the beginning of the songbook. These classes were often taught by itinerant teachers or by someone in the area noted for his proficiency in singing.

You'll hear people refer to "the red book" and "the blue book." These are the two principal collections of shape-note hymns. Different parts of the South favor one book or the other. In Florida and Georgia, the blue book, known as the Cooper revision, is popular. The red book, the Denson revision, is the main book in other parts of the South and in singings "up North." Some parts of the country sing faster; some slower. However, it's easy to adapt. There are some other books used in different parts of the South, but it's the style that's important.

It is the only music that Primitive Baptists use in their worship. Always unaccompanied and heart-felt, it is best experienced live. Nothing but hard surfaces and people singing loud and strong. Leaders change with every hymn and nothing is repeated. You just keep singing. You will find a warm welcome and usually the offer of a loaner book at the larger singings and conventions. You do not need to share anyone's religious convictions. There is often a break for "dinner on the grounds," with more food than anyone can possibly consume - and then go back for a couple more hours of singing. Don't worry about knowing the music; just jump in and start swimming along with everyone else. One friend of mine said that when she gets lost on the shapes, it sounds as though she's singing "fla, fla, fla." The nice part is no one is listening; they are singing.

To learn more, here are some resources:

Spiritual Folk-Songs of Early America: Two Hundred and Fifty Tunes and Texts With an Introduction and Notes, Collected and Edited by George Pullen Jackson. Jackson (1874-1953) was one of the earliest folk-song collectors in the South. This book is a classic.

The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music. Buell E. Cobb. The best introduction to the style, its history, and its present state.

Giving Glory to God in Appalachia: Worship Practices of Six Baptist Subdenominations. Howard Dorgan. If you want to know more about the Primitive Baptists, this is a good place to start.

Sacred Harp Singing <>  and <> Both of these sites have the same name and will tell you everything you want to know. fasola also has a comprehensive directory of singings.

And of course, YouTube has lots of recordings - some good, some great, some less so. Just travel around.


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