Posts Tagged ‘Northampton’

This coming weekend, March 12 and 13, is the annual Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention (“wmshc”) to be held in Northampton, Mass.

Some of you may notice that periodically there are references to Sacred Harp and/or Shape Note music or lyrics in my posts.

I first heard of Shape Note singing many years ago from a friend back in Kent, Ohio. When I moved to Western Mass in 2000, I saw a sign about shape note singing. It made a vague impression, but I was too new to the area and too busy with other things to pay it much heed, so it went into the hopper for later retrieval.

After seeing the movie “Cold Mountain,” I was finally ready to find out more and to commit to learning how to sing the music whose sound struck something old and deep in me.

Fortunately, there is a weekly Sacred Harp sing just 15 minutes from my house. Had this been a monthly sing, I have no doubt that I would never have been able to learn it. (My training as a teacher of the Alexander Technique also helped me tremendously and ties for the reason I was able to stick with the music).

This is a video I return to on occasion when I want to hear a really fine example of Shape Note/Sacred Harp music. There is much to recommend it: the boy’s consistent leading (ie, the boy’s got rhythm and he knows how to use it), his ability to connect with the different harmonic sections by turning his body and gaze, his lack of self-consciousness.

On a more personal note, this is one of the first songs I ever led and it continues to speak to me and to resonate within me. Its lyrics are an example of one of the many ways that Sacred Harp music beckons and pulls at my being in spite of its solidly Christian roots. The words speak of a passion for something in the afterlife which I experience on a regular basis as a craving in the here and now.

Another note: you will rarely, if ever, hear applause after a Sacred Harp song (more on that below), but I think this unusually large group of singers could not contain their pleasure and appreciation for so young and excellent a song leader.

I know that there might be questions: What is Shape Note music? What is Sacred Harp music? Are they the same? Why do you sometimes capitalize Shape Note, sometimes not? Why is this boy in the middle of the singers? Is this a choir? Why is everyone raising and lowering their hands? What are the sounds they are all making before they sing the words?

For me, the most important things I’ve learned are the following (keep in mind that I know far less than many of the people who sing shape note music):

“Shape Note” can refer to both a type of musical notation as well as a style of singing. The Sacred Harp, on the other hand, is a hymnal and it uses 4 (fa-sol-la-mi) of 7 possible shapes. There are other hymnals with 7 shapes (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti) and you may find the shapes in secular music as well.

Although I don’t usually see this word used to describe it, Sacred Harp is a perfect example of congregational music. Congregational music is sung by the congregation, not by the choir. It is for the people to sing, regardless of ability, vocal quality, sense of rhythm. I have heard it referred to as “communal” music, and this is just another way of saying that it is not sung by the choir. It also tells you something of its history.

Its congregational nature is also why Sacred Harp music is not sung as performance. That is not to say that you won’t hear it performed, but that is not its purpose. Again, by the people, for the people.

Calling Sacred Harp music “congregational” might lead to the impression that it is only sung in church and by church folk. While this was traditionally the case, it is not so nowadays for many people, yours truly included.

If this piques your interest and the sound leaves you craving more, check out the Convention in Noho this weekend. Better yet, find a regular sing close to where you live and keep coming back.

I’m fettered and chained up in clay,

I struggle and pant to be free

I long to be soaring away,

My God and my Savior to see.

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