A singer taps time with his foot during a recent gathering of Sacred Harp Singing.
Sacred Harp singers who gather one Sunday a month at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Billings are resolutely informal.
“No auditions required,” says a flier inviting all comers to the gatherings. “No musical experience required. No rehearsals or performances required. Just singing!”
That outlook matches the style of Sacred Harp singing itself. It is based on a simplified system of musical notation that uses “shape” notes instead of the traditional round notes, and there are just four shapes. Its origins are in the colonial American South, where churches with no pianos or organs relied on their congregants to provide music.
The sound produced by Sacred Harp singing—the name comes from “The Sacred Harp,” a tunebook printed in shape notes and published in 1844—is not easy to describe.
Gayla Bradberry, who founded Sacred Harp Singing, the group that meets at St. Andrew, said one of her favorite descriptions is, “Where Gregorian chant meets bluegrass.”
All singers welcome
Sacred Harp Singing meets on the third Sunday of each month at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, 180 24th St. W. Use the south door of the church.
For more information, call Gayla Bradberry at 259-0701 or write to her at email@example.com. To watch a short clip of the Billings group singing, click here.
And as a classically trained violinist who could never get the hang of playing fiddle music, Bradberry said, “Sacred Harp is as close as I can get to true folk music.”
She and Ryan Young, an experienced Sacred Harp singer who moved to Billings with his wife, Julie Beicken, last year, said other characteristics of Sacred Harp include a lack of vibrato, no rounded vowels and no real attempt by the singers—grouped into altos, trebles, tenors and basses—to blend together.
But the voices do come together, in a powerful, emotional way.
“It’s what you get when you ask people who are not natural singers to sing,” Young said.
At the May gathering, the 13 people who showed up to sing took turns describing how they came to Sacred Harp singing, or what it means to them.
Young said that he discovered it when he was living in Texas, working as a DJ at a college radio station.
“It’s weird and it’s beautiful,” he said. “What else do you need to know?”
Kim Hodges said her family comes from Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi, and she inherited shape-note hymnals from the 1800s.
“When I sit here and sing this,” she told the others, “it’s like I’m singing the songs my family sung, in the way they sang them.”
Karen Willard, a co-editor of the “Cooper Book,” a revised edition of “The Sacred Heart” songbook, was passing through Billings with her husband, Willard, and joined the group at its May meeting. She told of attending a Sacred Harp convention and being overwhelmed by the music and the lyrics.
“The words were just making me weep or shout out loud,” she said. A bit later she added, “I will cross the ocean to sing with somebody. I won’t cross the street to listen.”
That’s another key aspect of Sacred Harp singing. It is an intensely social activity. All the singers are invited to lead a song whenever the spirit moves them, and they lead by standing in the middle of a hollow square, with the four voice parts sitting in groups around them.
The singers are positioned so that they hear and experience the songs in all their power. If you sit and listen outside the square, it sounds good, but to really experience it, you have to be part of the gathering. And the position of song leader is passed around partly because of the informal, democratic nature of the singing, but also, they say, because the best place to hear Sacred Harp singing is right there, in the center of all those voices.
Bradberry said some singers take up Sacred Harp for reasons of faith and spirituality. The songs, like the old Protestant hymns, are full of stately proclamations of belief and wonder and worship, of lamentations, paeans and religious poetry.
But there is no proselytizing, Bradberry said, and the gatherings are open to men and women of all faiths and no faith. She also wants people to know that Sacred Harp singing is not some kind of quaint reenactment activity, but a living tradition, one that in recent years has grown in popularity around the country.
Bradberry’s family has roots in the South and she grew up singing a cappella four-part songs at her church in New Mexico. They used shape notes, she said, but there were seven notes, not four.
“We could hold our own without a piano or organ or anything,” she said. “It develops this fine musicality.”
Ed Kemmick/Last Best News
Sacred Harp singers during a recent gathering at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church.
The music all came back to her when she watched “Cold Mountain,” the Civil War-era movie that came out in 2003 and featured some Sacred Harp singing. Five or six years ago, she and a childhood friend, who sang with her in that church in New Mexico, attended a Sacred Harp convention in Boulder, Colo.
It was a moving experience. “I would sit and weep sometimes,” she said, and a couple of years ago she formed Sacred Harp Singing in Billings. Last year she attended another convention in Seattle, where she was able to sing with 200 other voices.
That is the apex of the Sacred Harp experience, Young said—attending conventions and singing with very large groups of people. He went to conventions in Texas when he lived there, and to many others on the East Coast when he lived in New York for a time.
“It’s hard to avoid clichés,” he said, “but there’s an earnestness and—do I want to say passion?—there’s just a powerful earnestness,” both to the music and to the culture around it. “It’s like going to a rock concert but you are also on stage,” he said.
The simplified musical notation assigns a different shape to four syllables— a triangle for fa, and oval for sol, a rectangle for la, and a diamond for mi. There is no absolute pitch. The leader on each song chooses what seems like a suitable pitch and each group of singers runs through the syllables in its part of the song, to learn the tune or refresh their memories of it, before launching into the song proper.
At the gathering earlier in May, Bradberry explained to a visitor before beginning the first song, “We sing the different syllables. That’s why it sounds like gibberish.”
But the gibberish is soon over and all the voices are singing their parts, some enthusiastically and quite loudly, some a bit more quietly and timidly. Some singers just sing. Others—and the leader always—keep time with their right hand and forearm, pivoting from the elbow, up and down like a semaphore, or down from the shoulder and then sweeping across the torso to the waist.
Even outside the square the effect is often quite powerful, elemental and emotional but never showy. There are no solos and there is no attempt by anyone to shine or to stand out. The effect is produced by the cumulative power of all the voices.
“It’s democratic,” Bradberry said later. “That’s what I love so much about the history of it. It’s America.”