Down the Road

Roads and life and how roads are like life

A cappella

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Yesterday’s post about Sacred Harp singing made me want to share again a couple posts from the archive about my experiences singing in harmony. I loved to do it and I miss it.

hpj3.jpgA long time ago my wife and I visited a little Church of Christ in a plain building that stood on an empty highway in a rural corner of the city. The warm and friendly members eagerly accepted us as guests. The service began simply with a welcome and a prayer. Then a man walked to the lectern and asked us to open our hymnals. We saw no instruments; I wondered if music was played on tape. No. He sang “sol,” raised a hand, swung it down – and then everyone exploded into song, belting out Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah, without accompaniment, in four-part harmony, at the tops of their lungs.

Unprepared, I raised my hands as if to cover my ears. We stood there stunned, eyes wide, mouths open. We had been Methodists, timid singers the lot. In this building, even the tone-deaf sang out, the strong, resonant voices around them carrying everyone’s voices through the rafters and straight up to the Lord.

I loved singing, and had I missed singing in harmony as I had in school choir many years before. Elated to sing this way again, I turned to my hymnal and its shaped notes and tried to keep up with the congregation in this song I didn’t know.

In time I learned it, and many others, in joy that came from feeling a special bond with God and connection with my fellow Christians. I offered the Lord my best voice, singing directly to Him. But the congregation’s cooperative singing offered God something of much greater beauty than I could create alone. Our singing helped me not only acknowledge and praise God, but also transcend myself to remember everyone else in the room who also sought the Lord. I even considered Christians in other a cappella congregations singing unabashedly just like us. I felt in touch with the whole body of Christ.

sofap.jpgI found comfort in my travels by identifying with Christians through a cappella singing. When away on business on a Sunday or a Wednesday evening, I usually found a congregation and went to worship with them. I noticed many times that singing the bass part of songs with them was a way others recognized me as a member of the church.

Unfortunately, a cappella singing was no less than a doctrine. The Church of Christ was born from the Restoration Movement in the 1800s, which sought to restore Christian practices to patterns found in the New Testament. The movement’s churches sought Biblical authority for all of its practices. Because the Bible does not mention using instruments of music in worship, the logic goes, instruments are therefore not authorized. Today, I consider this to be a real theological stretch. But back then I heard some preachers say that congregations that use instruments in worship are sinning and face hell unless they repent, and that a cappella Christians should not associate with instrumental Christians because to do so implies acceptance of their practices.

Sadly, arguments over instrumental music have caused Restoration Movement churches to split for more than a hundred years. When I attended this little Church of Christ, an enormous Christian Church sat about a mile down the road. The two churches were one until they split in 1894, and I’m told that instrumental music was one of the reasons. I know a former Church of Christ in my hometown that lost many members in the past decade as it underwent a spiritual transformation, a portion of which included adding instruments to worship.

When I left that little congregation, I turned to God for guidance. I expected to be led to another Church of Christ, but He directed me to a particular Christian Church. This and many other independent Christian Churches have Restoration Movement roots, and so its beliefs and practices were familiar to me. But that church featured a piano, a drum kit, and a guitar on the stage, and all of them got vigorous use during Sunday-morning worship.

It took me months to feel comfortable with the instruments, as I broke free from Church of Christ orthodoxy. I finally realized that because I was where God led me, that He knew what he has asked me to do, and that He was in control. So finally I became able to sing freely. Unfortunately, the congregation sang like timid Methodists. I came to miss the powerful congregational singing that helped me feel so connected to God and His people.


Originally shared in December, 2007. Tomorrow, a memory of singing in the school choir.

Singing the Sacred Harp

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It’s an American vocal music tradition with roots traceable through two centuries. Sacred Harp brings groups together to sing hymns and anthems in four-part harmony without musical accompaniment.

Sacred Harp arranges singers a square, grouped by part. Singers take turns choosing and leading songs from the songbook. They stand in the middle of the square, starting the song and keeping the beat by swinging their hands. The singers follow right along with their voices and their hands.

Sacred Harp

There is nothing modern about Sacred Harp. The songs are old, the melodies and harmonies are old, the method is old. But anyone with even a scant ability to sing can participate after learning to read the songbook’s shaped notes.

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Each note has a shape and syllable (fa, sol, la, mi, fa) that makes it fast and easy to sight-read any song and sing along. Also, the Sacred Harp tradition is to start a song by singing a verse using the syllables instead of lyrics to help newcomers get a feel for it. To hear what Sacred Harp sounds like, check out this video.

A Sacred Harp group sings every year at the Indiana State Fair, and I was fortunate enough to be there when they were this year. They are not performing for an audience, although one always gathers. Rather, they are singing for the joy of it, and they welcome everybody to join them. While I sat listening, several people walked in, sat down in the square, were issued a songbook, and participated.

Sacred Harp

I so wanted to join them. I love to sing, especially in four-part harmony, having sung in choirs as a boy and in an a cappella Church of Christ as an adult. The Church of Christ hymnal even used shaped notes. But I never learned to read them because I learn songs by ear very easily. Unfortunately, I can’t learn a song fast enough to participate before the end of a song I’m hearing for the first time.

Sacred Harp

So I lingered around the edges of this intense group, photographing them in action. These were not professional singers, just bold ones. And my goodness, were they loud! My experience in the Church of Christ taught me that you can have marginal vocal ability and still participate fully in this kind of singing. The sound is always better than the sum of its parts.

Recommended reading

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These posts from blogs I follow got my attention this week:

Bruce Robbins writes about the photographic doldrums, or times as a photographer when you feel like you’ve photographed your usual subjects to death. He asks his readers how they handle it. Read Ploughing over old ground

There’s charm in living minimally, as John Smith enjoyed until recently in his home of just 850 square feet. Read Beacon Cottage

In writing about the new Apple Watch, Michael Lopp (b/k/a Rands) also calls the Apple TV a “hobby” for Apple – something they’re not serious about. That boggles my mind, because to other companies in that space (i.e., Roku), it’s their entire business. Read Not a Hobby

Writing on Medium, Lindsay Roth tells of her sixteenth summer, when she met and was interviewed on the radio by Joan Rivers. Read The First Time I Met Joan Rivers

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