What I did with my weekend

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.

5 thoughts on “What I did with my weekend”

  1. So *this* is what postmodern urbanites do on weekends. This postpostmodern ruralette is fascinated.

  2. You make an excellent point about the transcendent power of music and how it can shape a congregation. My wife, a liberal minded, loving person, still firmly grounded in her Baptists roots, occasionally attends UU a service and activity with me. She enjoys the diversity of opinion and respects our free thinking, non-dogmatic approach to faith but doesn’t feel like she can really fit in.

    Her greatest criticism, aside from a few encounters with radical atheists who she considers too negative, was the selection of hymns. Her comment was, “I wish they had better music”. Like many people, she primarily looks to religion for an emotional boost and positive, energetic singing is the quickest route for her. She would instantly light up with joy singing Sacred Harp. Traditional hymns, like folk music, strike a common chord with many of us regardless of our educational background or class distinction. It’s what we grew up with and it feels right to us on a very personal level.

    As for the theology, I’ve heard excellent, rational, UU sermons preached on such hot topics as the Garden of Eden and the resurrection. I doubt that a rousing chorus of “The Promised Land” would send the average UU congregation running for the exits but it might get their attention. I think a skillful UU minister could use this music as an opportunity to expand on the traditional teachings and point to the underlying message of Love and Hope that’s been hidden from us in plain view for over 2000 years.

  3. Al, you may be interested to know that there are Unitarians and Universalists in the Sacred Harp. Composer Abraham Maxim (nos. 371, 556) was a Universalist. And there are texts by Universalist Hosea Ballou (no. 411), and Unitarian Samuel Longfellow (no. 573). And John Bowring was a Unitarian when he wrote the words to no. 532, though he later left Unitarianism. I’ve thought of doing a Sacred Harp sermon from a Universalist point of view, but haven’t gotten around to it yet.

  4. As a fellow UU and shapenote singer, I agree with your points. The harmonies themselves and the layers of sound convey so much even without any words. I used to think I loved the music in spite of the words, but came to realize they speak to me as well. Maybe not in a literal sense, but the texts speak to universal concerns and the question of ultimate meaning. We may not always agree with the answers the authors provide, but we can certainly relate to the emotional and spiritual expressions of individuals trying to relate to the “Ground of Being”.

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