Sacred Harp music takes its name from a series of American tunebooks called The Sacred Harp. It’s participatory, non-instrumental, choral music that anyone is invited to sing — there is no rehearsing for performance — with strong roots in the early music of New England and the deep South, and which has spread throughout the United States and to Canada, Europe, and Australia.
The Sacred Harp uses a system of musical notation, called shape notes, that allow even relatively new singers to sing tunes at a first reading. Singers typically sit in a square, by parts, and everyone is invited to lead from the center of the square.
The video shown here, from the 2012 annual Golden Gate singing in San Francisco, shows our typical practice — first, the singers “sound the chord,” and practice the song by “singing the shapes”. The leader in the middle sets the tempo by beating time, and many in the square join her. After singing the shapes, the singers, called “the class,” sing the words, which are usually of a religious nature:
Young people, all attention give,
And hear what I do say;
I want your souls with Christ to live,
In everlasting day;
Remember, you are hast’ning on
To death’s dark, gloomy shade;
Your joys on earth will soon be gone,
Your flesh in dust be laid.
If you’re not religious, or Christian, worry not — people from many traditions (and lack thereof) enjoy this music for its power and depth and for the joy of singing together.
More information is available at fasola.org. But the best way to learn about Sacred Harp is to join us in singing what just might be America’s oldest continuing choral music tradition.
For more information about Bay Area Sacred Harp, please visit our About page.