July 17, 2011

IN THE BAND:

Old form of singing still a communal fete (Kimberly Haas, 7/17/11, Philadelphia Inquirer)

Sacred harp is a style of four-part a cappella shape-note music that was widespread in colonial America, the name being a euphemism for the human voice. Many tunes are set in minor keys or use open chords that lend them a haunting quality. The 18th- and 19th-century lyrics are often equally harsh, foretelling of death and travail and, occasionally, hard-earned redemption.

A sacred harp "singing" can range from a dozen or two participants for a local event to a multiday "convention" that draws more than 200 singers from many states. The four voice parts each sit together facing the others, with individual singers taking turns leading songs in the center.

The group first sings through a tune by using the names of the shape notes - fa, sol, la, and mi - then launches into the lyrics. This format helps new singers learn the melody. And therein lies a vital distinction about sacred harp: This is participatory music. Observers are welcome, but if they stick around for more than a couple of tunes, they'll invariably be handed a songbook and gently invited to join in.

"Nobody expects perfection. People are not judgmental," declares Dan Coppock, 25, a Philadelphian who learned sacred harp from his folk-musician parents.

Sacred harp had mostly died out in the North but was nurtured and kept alive in the South, passed down through generations as a birthright. Such fire-and-brimstone lyrics as "The grave will soon become your bed, where silence reigns and vapors roll, in solemn darkness round your head" were sung in Primitive Baptist churches. Yet right here in Philadelphia and its environs, a resurgence of this compelling musical form is taking place - but with some local variations. Lacking the continuity of singing families and churches, the sacred harp groups that have sprung up here draw their membership from an unlikely combination of sources.

"You'll see a diverse group: young hipsters, older people who came to it through the folk-music revival of the 1970s. And outside the city, Plain People join in the local singings in Berks and Lancaster Counties," says Rachel Wells Hall, who last summer founded Old City Singers, which meets monthly in Christ Church's Neighborhood House on Second Street.

Add in the Southern singers who travel to attend annual all-day singings, and it could be a setting for some awkward conversations. Instead, people of different backgrounds, with wildly differing views on flash-point topics, sit side-by-side for hours, get along famously, and forge long-term friendships.




Posted by at July 17, 2011 5:18 AM
  

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