Tag Archives: Sacred Harp


This afternoon, I drove to Providence to the monthly Sacred Harp singing. Sacred Harp is one branch of an American shape note singing tradition which dates back to the Boston composer William Billings in the late 18th C.; it is an indigenous polyphonic sacred choral music tradition that left New England in the 19th C., migrated to the Appalachians, survived into the 20th C. in the deep South, whence it migrated back to New England in the 1970s.

A dozen of us sat around singing our hearts out for three hours. In Sacred Harp singings, the people who are singing choose the songs to sing. It was time to end; what should the last song be? Someone suggested we sing number 183, “Greenwich”:

  Lord, what a thoughtless wretch was I,
  To mourn and murmur and repine,
  To see the wicked placed on high,
  In pride of honor shine.

  But oh, their end, their dreadful end,
  Thy sanctuary taught me so,
  On slipp’ry rocks I see them stand,
  And fiery billows roll below.

It’s a lovely song to sing, but one of the tenors said it should not be our last song. Smiling, I said, “You don’t want to be left with that last vivid image as you drive home?” and she replied, “Well, that’s what I believe in, but we really should sing a different song for a closing.” Still smiling, I decided that it was not a good time to reveal that theologically I am a post-Christian Universalist. Then someone suggested that we close with “Christian’s Farewell,” which is slow and easy to sing, and which has words that were altogether more appropriate for a closing song:

  Brethren, farewell, I do you tell,
  I’m sorry to leave, I love you so well.
  Now I must go, where I don’t know,
  Wherever Christ leads me,
  The trumpet to blow….

While singing this, it occurred to me that there are some Unitarian Universalists who would refuse to sing any of these Sacred Harp songs, because they would object to the theology. But that would be like refusing to go into Notre Dame in Paris, because it is a Papist abomination. I sang my heart out, and loved every minute of it, theology notwithstanding:

  Here I have worked, labored a while,
  But labor is sweet if Jesus doth smile.
  When I am done, I will go home,
  Where Jesus is smiling,
  And bids me to come.

Sometimes you do theology, and sometimes you just sing.

Shape note singing & today’s hymnody

At the New England Folk Festival, one of the workshops I attended was an introduction to shape note singing. Shape note singing is a tradition of hymn singing that stretches back to the singing schools established by North American ministers in the second half of the 18th C. as a way to improve congregational singing. The shape note tradition began in New England with composers like William Billings (1746-1800) of Boston, moved south where it produced books like The Southern Harmony in 1854, and held on into the 20th C. in Appalachia and a few other out-of-the-way regions. Finally, starting about 1975 shape note singing enjoyed a nation-wide renaissance with singing groups from New England to California (link to list of regional singings). Thus shape note singing is an indigenous North American musical tradition with an unbroken two-and-a-quarter-century history.

At the workshop I attended, I learned the basics of one shape-note tradition. The music is sung in four parts (sometimes three parts) and is printed in a distinctive style of musical notation where the note-heads have different shapes depending on the pitch. The singing style is full-throated and open, even a little nasal. The singers are always arranged in a square divided into four sections: tenors or leads (they carry the melody) in one section; sopranos or trebles to their right; altos to the right of sopranos; and basses to the right of the altos and the left of the leads. The center of this square is left open and whoever is leading a given hymn stands in the center facing the tenors, and beats time (the front row of tenors also beat time for those who can’t see the song leader).

As a working minister, what really struck me is the gap between singing shape-note hymns for an hour sitting in a square on the one hand, and the realities of incorporating hymn-singing into real-life liturgy on the other hand. Shape-note singing started as a singing school, a way to teach ordinary people how to sight-read four-part harmony; the singing master would come to your town for six weeks or some months, and lots of people would learn how to sing shape-note hymns, and then the singing master would go away and (in theory, at least) a big percentage of your congregation would have some basic music skills. Of course, when you use shape-note hymns in a worship service, I can’t see that you would have everyone sit in a square, and divide up your congregation by tenors, sopranos, etc. But the shape-note hymnal embodies the teaching method of the singing master.

What particularly interested me is that shape-note singing connects a specific hymnal with the pedagogical method (teaching people how to sight-read music, etc.). Hymnals such as The Scared Harp are both teaching tools, and liturgical resources. Compare that to the hymnal that I use everyday, Singing the Living Tradition, which seems to be written by musicians for other musicians; there is no concession made to the non-musician, and there are no singing schools to help people how to use that hymnal. The new Unitarian Universalist hymnal supplement, Singing the Journey, makes even less of a concession to non-musicians — most of the hymns require an accomplished or professional accompanist, some of the hymns stretch out over six pages (requiring three page turns) — while it contains some beautiful music, it’s really a hymnal for trained soloists and choir directors, not a hymnal for the average member of a congregation. Having peeked into the hymnals of other denominations, I think this is a widespread problem.

Contrast a hymnal like Singing the Journey with the group singing songbook Rise Up Singing. Rise Up includes only lyrics and simple chord progressions, no musical notation — you either have to know a song, or you have to have a song leader who can lead the song. Rise Up has a pedagogical method implicit in it:– you learn to sing by singing songs you’re already familiar with, and then when you gain confidence you’re willing to learn new songs that are led campfire-style (mostly unison singing, with simple guitar strumming) by a song leader. I’ve used both Rise Up and Singing the Living Tradition extensively, and in my experience, Rise Up is much better at empowering average singers to simply sing.

I’m not suggesting that we replace our hymnal with Rise Up Singing (although I have used Rise Up successfully in worship services). But we could learn this from shape note singing:– every hymnal could include a coherent pedagogical method that will improve the skills of the average singer.