I spent this past weekend singing Sacred Harp music: six hours of singing on Saturday, and another hour or so on Sunday. Sacred Harp is a kind of four-part a capella singing which originated in eighteenth century New England, migrated to the South in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and which is now undergoing a renaissance among postmodern urbanites in the northern and western parts of the U.S. Rolling Stone magazine described it as “a robust, harmonically intricate of country joy and unearthly drone.”
This is sacred music; many of the texts are by Isaac Watts, which means this music would never be sung in most Unitarian Universalist congregations, where people tend to squirm at the mention of God and Jesus. Even though I don’t agree with the theology of most of the songs we sang, nevertheless I got more religion out of singing Sacred Harp than I generally get in a Unitarian Universalist worship service. I’ve been thinking about why that is so, and here are four of my reasons:
(a) Sacred Harp singing is DIY — do-it-yourself — music. There is no paid choir director, no soloists, no experts; there are no performances or performers; everyone participates in order for the music to happen. By contrast, Unitarian Universalist worship services feel like performances in front of an audience; if I don’t show up, it won’t make much difference.
(b) Sacred Harp singing can be, and often is, an ecstatic experience. Ecstatic and transcendental experiences tend to make Unitarian Universalists very uncomfortable.
(c) There’s a broad distribution of ages among Sacred Harp singers, from the late teens to the eighties and nineties. Unitarian Universalist congregations tend to be made up mostly of people who are fifty and older.
(d) The singing is loud, exuberant, and enthusiastic. The tunes are pitched so that ordinary singers can sing them comfortably. By contrast, singing in Unitarian Universalist congregations tends to be restrained, and the tunes are pitched so high that those of us with ordinary voices can’t sing them.
I still love my Unitarian Universalist church; Sacred Harp singing would not be an adequate substitute for what I get out of my religious community. But I can still wish the Unitarian Universalism would embrace the DIY ethos, welcome ecstasy and transcendence, include younger people, and sing better.