July 16, 2020

Singing in Community

One of the earliest forms of American folk music speaks to the power of people singing together in community. As Steven Sabol says in his article, “Sacred Harp Singing: History & Tradition”  — “At Sacred Harp singings and conventions, participants sing the powerful and harmonious American music from The Sacred Harp, the most enduring of the shape-note tunebooks popular in 19th-century rural America. This tunebook, in its several editions, has given its name to a tradition of unaccompanied community singing and fellowship surviving to the present day.”

The Sacred Harp was first published in 1844, a collection of true “folk” music influenced primarily by tunes from the British Isles. The hymn tunes, psalm tunes, anthems, and fuguing tunes it contained, written by such composers as William Billings, were used to sing mostly sacred texts by English hymn writers such as Watts, Wesley, and Newton. Later editions added tunes by southern composers. It was one of several early “frontier” songbooks that included: Kentucky Harmony (1816), Missouri Harmony (1820, used by Abraham Lincoln), and Southern Harmony (1835).

These songbooks grew out of the singing school tradition in early America and not from church worship settings. The pieces were known by their tune names and not their first lines, and texts might be set to several different tunes. The music is structured so that it gives the impression of simultaneous melodies, often sung in a stark and lively manner. The tunes are written using “shaped notes” — shapes that represent the interval of the note from the key or tonic pitch. This allowed untrained singers to sight read more easily, enabling many Americans to learn to sing written music.

After the Civil War, when other types of music began to gain more prominence, Sabol tells us that “singing from The Sacred Harp continued to be popular in the rural South, where there evolved a tradition of all-day singings and 2- or 3-day conventions of “Fasola” music in simple one-room churches, with dinner on the grounds, the honoring of deceased relatives and friends in Memorial Lessons, and traditional Southern hospitality and fellowship. These singings became social rituals in which the pristine elements of music, spirituality, fellowship, and food were distilled away from trappings and distractions.”

This practice is being maintained in many places throughout the U.S. to this day, and HERE is a list of Sacred Harp singings in 2012. Warren Steel describes what happens on one of these occasions:

An all-day Sacred Harp singing is a day devoted to music and fellowship. All-day singings are usually held in small rural churches, or in schoolhouses, courtrooms, or community centers. They usually take place on the same weekend every year, say, the Fourth Sunday in May, and often mark the annual homecoming for a local church or community, when local natives return from far and near to decorate the graves in the nearby cemetery, visit with friends, and enjoy the music that sustained their parents and grandparents. Some annual singings and conventions extend to two or even three days of singing, and may meet in various locations from year to year.

Typically, an all-day singing begins between 9:30 and 10:00 AM. When the singers have seated themselves by singing part (tenor, bass, treble and alto), the singing begins with an opening song, a prayer, and a brief organizational meeting. Each individual is invited to take a turn leading a lesson, that is, standing in the center of the “class,” choosing one or more songs by page number, sounding the opening pitch (or receiving the key from an experienced singer nearby), and leading the song by beating time with a simple vertical motion of the hand, first with the singing syllables (fa, sol, la, and mi), and then with the words. The officers may call a brief recess in the morning or afternoon, but the only extended break comes at noon, when everyone proceeds to outdoor tables or a fellowship hall for an abundant dinner on the grounds provided by local families.

After an hour, or when the dinner is cleared, the singers return to the main building to continue the rotation of leaders. There may be a brief “memorial lesson” in honor of singers or community members who have died in the past year; indeed some annual singings are themselves memorials to beloved singers and family members. Singings usually end between 2:30 and 4:00, depending on the number of leaders. After announcements of upcoming singings, there is a closing song and a prayer of dismissal.

The following is a trailer for Awake My Soul, by filmmakers Matt and Erica Hinton, a feature documentary that explores the history, music, and traditions of Sacred Harp singing. It will give you a taste of a few of the sights and sounds of this wonderful music that evokes a time when communities sang together in meaningful times of recreation and fellowship.


  1. See Foxfire 7 pp. 280-346: http://www.foxfire.org/images/products/detail/F7.jpg

    Plus, you also get revivals, baptisms, faith healings, and snake handling, with stories, testimonies and photos.

    This volume should be on every iMonker’s bookshelf.

  2. Throughout the state of Alabama you will find Sacred Harp singings. I live in the capitol city of Montgomery and have enjoyed Sacred Harp in the routnda of the state capitol building. Truly a folk art form and expression of worship worthy of holding onto.

  3. Richard Hershberger says

    In fairness, we should note that there are two distinct groups doing Sacred Harp today. One is the traditional deep South rural religious crowd. The second is what I call the “Birkenstock crowd”: an outgrowth of the folk music revival of a half century or so back. The Birkenstock crowd self consciously adopts the forms of the Southern sing, but the approach to the fact of religious content depends on the individual, from those who accept this as a form of hymnody to those of no particular religion who like the music.

    The intersection of the two groups can be interesting: generally congenial, but with no confusion about which is which. I have heard the critique from the Southern group that the Birkenstock crowd just show up for the music. When a genuine Southerner wanders into a northern sing, he can get treated as a celebrity.

    Sacred Harp is a genuinely fun form to sing. (Frankly, it is much more fun to sing than to hear sung.) I did it before I was married. I hope to get back into it when the kids are old enough to participate.

  4. “Awake My Soul” is available from Netflix. You can have it after me!

  5. What I love about this is the way in which everyone gets to take part and to lead. The complete opposite of many worship experiences today with the star leader and the supporting musicians. Accessible, inclusive and they sing for God and to each other, they don’t need an audience. I love it!

  6. I LOVE the fuguing hymn tunes. We did one of them for a metrical setting of Psalm 98 at our Christmas Eve service last year. It was loads of fun.

  7. I grew up in Southern Baptist churches with memories going back to the early 60’s and I have never once heard of this sort of thing. What a pity. To sing with that kind of abandon must be truly liberating.

    I am rehearsing with a voluntary choral society to sing the Messiah in a few weeks, and frankly, the nit-picking and perfectionism of my fellow choir members (not the professional director) has absolutely destroyed any joy the experience might have offered.

  8. Kind of reminds me of a more folky version of some of the Joel Cohen’s work with the Boston Camerata. I have their Christmas Album, and some of these early American hymns have such an immediacy, for lack of a better word, to them.

  9. petrushka1611 says

    Years ago, I read a quote about Sacred Harp: “I wouldn’t walk across the street to hear it, but I’d crawl across town to sing it.” 🙂

  10. The psalm sung with such vigor in the clip above is similar to the tune called NATIVITY, number 350 in The Sacred Harp; it was written by Thomas Jarman, an Englishman, and first published in 1803. (The version in the present edition of the Sacred Harp has had its fuge removed.) So it comes from the early, English, and formal strain of Sacred Harp music.

    The Boston Camerata has done shapenote tunes, as has Anonymous Four; these professional performances, though they may be delightful in themselves, are very different both in sound and in context from traditional singings (whether held in the South or in the realms of the Northern Revival, which now extend west to Alaska and east to Poland). This weekend I went to an all-day singing in Pennsylvania; also present were a couple from Yorkshire who were on a three-week shapenote tour of the US.

    If you want to find a singing near you or to learn more about Sacred Harp, start at fasola.org.