Sacred Harp Music

Sacred harp music is one of the oldest American music and in fact one of the most significant (Giles “Recordings in Review”). Also known as shape-note singing, it is a traditional, native, shape note singing with an a cappella folk-hymn style (Bessman “Cold Mountain”). Although the name suggests the use of a harp, there is actually no harp used to produce the music, as mentioned earlier, it is sung a capella (Manley “New Documentary”). By singing without any musical accompaniment, it aims to resemble the human voice singing praises to God (Abernethey  “Sacred Harp”). The sacred harp songs were composed during the difficult times of the people, and the songs are usually a reminder that pain and misery is natural and an unavoidable part of life (Abernethey  “Sacred Harp”). This was their way of communicating with God.

However, most of the English and American hymn tunes were originally related with labor songs, drinking songs, folk songs, sea songs, drinking songs and other songs that were associated with the daily lives of folk people (Snow “The Sacred Harp”).

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With its beginning on the late eighteenth century, it was devised by early colonists to assist them in learning how to read music (Manley “New Documentary”).

Sacred harp singing is common up to the present in the colonial and southern regions of the United States (Steel “Sacred Harp”). Some consider the South as the best location for finding excellent and traditional sacred harp singing (“Sacred Harp”). The northern part of the Mississippi conducts everyday singing which is included in their daily religious routine (Jackson “Like a River”).

This music is gradually spreading across the United States reaching not just the South but the West coast and central USA as well. The Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association has documented the establishment of different local singing group has been established in California, Kansas, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Washington to name a few.

It has also reached Canada and the United Kingdom (“Sacred Harp Singing”).  A large number of British have been actively participating in the sacred harp community. Numerous singings and convention have been held in Oxford, Kegworth, Beeston, Hitchen, Leicester, Gwehelog, Finstock, South Yorkshire and Oxon (“Minutes and Pictures”).

Different sacred harp books have emerged with the settling of migrants to the South.  This also caused the appearance of sacred book publications on different centers of migration (Lausevic “Sacred Harp”).

Prior to the Civil War, sacred harp book publications extend to Missouri, Georgia and Virginia. Lausevic claims that it continued to reach Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee where present sacred harp music is concentrated (“Sacred Harp”). There was a temporary halt to the production of hymn books during the Civil War. Post-war era put in fresh advances in these books.

The most famous of them all was The Sacred Harp. It was an early American Christian hymn book published in 1844 and became the basis for sacred harp singing. Written by Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha King, The Sacred Harp is widely used and already has several newer versions (“Sacred Harp Singing”).

William Reynolds described the life of the author. Benjamin White was a music teacher and a member of the Missionary Baptist denomination. Prior to The Sacred Harp, he had written a songbook entitled Southern Harmony. He has also edited a number of articles on sacred harp songs on newspapers. Some of these songs were included in The Sacred Harp. Reynolds continued that after the release of the book, he became the president of one of the conventions formed in Georgia. He was also included in the group of people who wrote a couple of revisions of The Sacred Harp (Reynolds “B.F. White”).

While Benjamin White has enjoyed the fame and advantage after doing the book, his co-writer, Elisha King died months before their book was released (Hinton and Hinton “About Sacred Harp”). He died at the young age of 23.

The newer editions of The Sacred Harp are commonly used today, specifically in Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Georgia (“Sacred Harp Singing”). According to the same source, the printing of the original book was stopped after the death of Benjamin White. At that time, there had already been four versions of the book. Among the versions widely used today is the Cooper Edition of The Sacred Harp. Because of the increasing demand for sacred harp books, Wilson Marion Cooper decided to revise the latest edition of the book. The Cooper edition of The Sacred Harp was published in 1902 (“Sacred Harp Singing”).  It contains 597 tunes composed by sacred harp singers and some from the books of the bible like the Book of Songs, Psalms and Revelation (Kilmer “Cooper Book”).

In addition to the Cooper Edition is the Denson Revision of the original book. Thomas Denson founded the Sacred Harp Publishing Company which also published the The Original Sacred Harp (Denson Revision) in 1936 (Snow “The Sacred Harp”).

The 1991 Edition of The Sacred Harp is the most used in the South and even internationally (Snow “The Sacred Harp”). This newer compilation has an additional 62 songs and 46 removed older tunes (Sabol “The Sacred Harp”). Sabol continues that the 554 songs included 18th and 19th century timeless songs by composers of the South and Midwest.

African-American singers of the Mississippi also composed hymns which are compiled in a book by Judge Jackson in 1934, The Colored Sacred Harp. This book is frequently used by African-Americans especially during special occasions (Lausevic “Sacred Harp”). Jackson had an early background in sacred harp music. He was a teenager in Alabama when he first heard sacred hymn singing and was making his own tunes when he was twenty-one. When he left his home and went wandering around with no place to go, he conversed with God and promised to serve him. In the 1920s Jackson had a number of his compositions printed on broadsheets which he eventually gave and sold to friends and associates in Alabama. He also became interested in sacred harp singing and started studying the music on his own. He became the president of the Dale County Musical Institute in 1932 and together with other members, decided to write a book on sacred harp music (“About the Author”). The primary aim of this book was to unite Whites and Blacks in promoting the tradition of sacred harp music by providing each home a copy of the book (“Wiregrass Sacred”).

To date, the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association has approximated a number of 500 collections of odes, hymns and anthems are used by singers. Traditional music is continuously made by living composers who devote themselves to spreading the custom of producing wonderful tunes.

The formation in sacred harp singing also affects the outcome of the performance. The singers perform in a square assembly with each side representing a different part of the four-part harmony—fa, sol, la and mi (Abernethey “Sacred Harp”). The different sides are formed by the female alto, male bass, male and female treble section and the male and female tenor section. The treble section is the top line in music, alto is the second line, the tenor or the melody is the third line and the bottom line is the bass (Grayson 1). Each part sings the designated musical scale. Females and males who are joined in the treble and tenor section usually sing an octave apart (Polling “GPTV Films”).

Singers usually take turns in picking the song to be sung and leading the whole group. In the case of African-Americans, older singers typically request younger singers to lead the song (“Wiregrass Sacred”). In some cases, an “arranging committee” announces the name of the person who will choose the song to lead. Each singer commonly chooses two songs which were not yet sung for the day. Whoever chose the song would stand at the middle of the square and face the tenor section to lead the singers. The leader starts a note of the song in a tenor voice and if the pitch of the note is inappropriate, the whole group will adjust it. This makes sacred harp music a “singer’s song”, also because of the involvement of the singers in creating and delivering the tune (Lausevic “Sacred Harp”).

The leaders usually use gestures while singing, particularly by beating their hand up and down with 2 or 3 beats per measure to determine the tempo. Most singers also beat together with the leader. As a mater of fact, some seats in the front rows are usually reserved for the most experienced singers to beat in unison as support to the leader.  African-Americans are usually stylistic in their moves than the Whites. Leadership and singing styles are also developed as the singer grows older. The song is usually ended by a round of applause or some emotional reactions from other singers.  (“Wiregrass Sacred”) However, some singers don’t usually welcome applause. Normally, they reserve it for beginning singers and children (Grayson 2).     The singers don’t sing the lyrics at the beginning but instead bring out the tune of the notes fa, sol, la and mi, and it is the leader’s task to begin by singing the shape note. This has been the basis of the labeling on the sacred harp singers as the fasola group (Polling “GPTV Film”).

Singers usually get emotional after a song especially when they are reminded of a decesed singer whom they associate that song with (Bealles “Sacred Harp Community”). Bealles  includes that this scenario may also inspire the singer to lead that tune.

A system of four shapes—triangle, circle, square and diamond—is used to refer to the four notes (Jackson “Like the River”). The singers base their singing on the shapes of the notes. This exhibits what they call the “sight singing”.  This was the method used in early singing schools to enable fast learning.

In order to learn the basics of sacred harp music, singing schools were launched to help individuals discover the beauty of music with the whole community.  However, this was not the original purpose of singing schools. They actually led to the development of the sacred harp music (Abernethy “Sacred Harp”).

Singing schools were the first American music institution to be established as early as the 1700 (Steel “Singing Schools”). The first singing schools usually lasted a couple of months, usually during winter. This is in comparison to the present singing schools which provide lessons during summer or spring and only lasted for weeks.

Early singing schools were usually very simplistic, with a teacher with a rather good voice and some books. Easy Instructor, or A New Method of Teaching Sacred Harmony, published by William Little and William Smith published in 1801, became the most used books in singing schools. This book became one of the bases of White and King’s 1884 book The Sacred Harp (Abernethy “Sacred Harp”).

During the “Second Great Awakening”, a new development in the mode of instructions in singing schools was introduced. This was the utilization of shaped notes to aid in the learning of the tunes (“Wiregrass Sacred”).

One of the pioneers of singing school was a singing master, William Billings. He thought that it is important for communities to have a deep connection with the divine being. So with other singing masters, he built singing schools in communities. Singing schools extended from New England through the mountainside of the Appalachians and the Mississippi, reaching Missouri by the 1800s (Hinton and Hinton “About Sacred Harp”).

Warren Steel has documented that from 1999 to the present, 18 singing schools have been held. Earlier singing schools took place in Arkansas and Tennessee. Georgia and Alabama were continuous in sponsoring these singing schools. These short courses cater to both beginners and experienced sacred harp singers of all ages. A minimum of $12 has been charged covering four day sessions of singing, recreation and fellowship (Steel “Singing schools”). Workshops on sacred harp music are also done during festivities and performances.

There was also a singing school, recognized by an organization named UK Shapenote Singing, which offered lessons for free, held in the United Kingdom on October 2006.

The fast rising number of singing schools also implies the fast spreading of sacred harp music. It has been a helpful means of disseminating information about sacred harp singing and its wonders.

The sacred harp singing also incorporated the method of solfege. Solfege is allocating a syllable to every pitch. This system uses the syllables as do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do. This was created in the 10th century in order to facilitate better and faster learning of musical notes. This vision-based system is useful both in singing and playing an instrument (Randolf “Introduction to”).

Sacred harp songs are usually sang loud because for the singers, the louder the better. Since the hymns were originally sung as part of everyday lives and worship, loudness enables them to release emotions and just let loose (Grayson 1). Sacred harp singing is also characterized by fuging tunes (Bealles “Sacred Harp Community”). Fuging tunes are the other version of the “fuging psalm tune” used in 18th centrury England (Lowens 43). Lowens claims that American fuging tunes are closely related to the  European fugues instead it is unique in its own sense. Fuging tunes, typically includes the four voices taking turns in singing the variations of the tune (“fuging tune”).

The change in the music corresponds with the emotions of the singers, as Ornette Coleman calls it breath music (Dust-to-Digital “I Belong”) Participation is the main key to describe its relation to society. Singers act as the performers and also the audience. Non-singers are also welcome to join and they usually sit at the back of the tenor side. Normally, they are encouraged to join the singing in the middle of the square (Grayson 1). It also creates a connection between the singers uniting them as a strong community (Clawson 311). Although Christian hymns are sung, the sacred harp music is not partial and invites all religion (Lausevic “Sacred Harp”). This enables a wider united community celebrating the magnificence of music.

Singers usually take pleasure in attending different conventions conducted in other locations. This enables them to interact with other people who share the same interests with them. This makes sacred harp singing an efficient way to bond people from different places and religion (Lausevic “Sacred Harp”).

Singing conventions usually take place with activities like dinner-at-the-grounds, and socializing at someone’s house, singing sacred harp music and other tunes (Lausevic “Sacred Harp”). A typical convention is illustrated by Kiri Miller. The Chicago Sacred Harp singers hold their convention every January. They refer to this as the “Anniversary Singing”, a sort of means to celebrate the role of sacred harp singing in their lives (Miller 475). With a less formal mood, the “Anniversary Singing” is more intimate than the Midwest Convention attended by more sacred harp singers. Everyone enjoys the relaxed environment (475).

All-day singings and dinner-on-the grounds have been brilliantly depicted by some artists like Bethane Hill and Ethel Wright Mohamed (Steel “Sacred Harp”). Steel described that the original painting includes depictions of a church in Alabama which captures the sacred harp singing activities. The 42″ x 36″ painting entitled, Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Grounds was commissioned in 2003 by Max Berueffy.
Ethel Wright Mohamed was born in a community of sacred harp singers. In her painting Double Spring Sacred Harp Singing, she described how all-day singings and dinners seem like family reunions. Mohamed also told how people in the earlier times would travel with their horses and wagons from the far side just to get there. She described her experience on community singing while describing each character in the painting (Steel “Sacred Harp”).
“Alan Lomax and George Pullen Jackson were the first to document the Sacred Harp singing tradition in a 1942 Alabama recording for the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song” (The Library of Congress “Amazing Grace”).

“Today, Sacred Harp music is still widespread in the Mississippi Delta” (Jackson “Like a River) and has been slowly making its way back into the interests of many, not just of the academic community but the entertainment industry as well.
Bessman described how sacred harp was used in the 2004 Academy award nominated film Cold Mountain (40). The storyline of the movie took place in the south, particularly, Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Since sacred harp music is still prevalent in the south, especially in the rural areas, it was relatively a good choice for the soundtrack of the movie. It brings out the “southern-ness” of Cold Mountain. According to Tim Eriksen who arranged the soundtrack of the film, sacred harp music is remarkable because it moves along the edges of written and oral tradition. All sacred harp music used in the movie is traditional (Bessman 40).
Sacred harp music was also used for the soundtrack of Gangs of New York (Manley). The music of this 2002 movie was an integration of traditional and contemporary tune which added a new twist to the sacred harp music (Petrusich “Jack White”).
In relation to the awakened interest in sacred harp music, a documentary regarding the music was aired November 13 last year on Georgia Public Broadcasting. Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp was produced by two sacred harp singers, Matt and Erika Hinton of Atlanta. This documentary aims to discover and explore how the centuries-old music has traveled to the south coast of the United States and continue to inspire people with its harmony until the present day (Polling “GPTV Film”).

As a companying piece for the documentary Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, Dust-to-Digital label has released I Belong to this Band: 85 Years of Sacred Harp Recordings. The record contains 30 tracks of sacred harp music from 1922 to the present. It includes songs from three eras of the music: those from the 1920’s to the ‘40s, from the ‘50s which was sung by a small group of singers and the existing daily sacred harp music. The record gathered positive feedbacks on the integration of historical music to contemporary ones. Reviews also perceived I Belong to this Band as a powerful religious music (Loftus “Enter Death’s”).



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