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.
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.
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.
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.
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.