If you’d have told 25-year-old me – as agnostic then as I am now – that in 10 years’ time I’d be making a musical pilgrimage to a church in rural Alabama, I think I might’ve spat out a mouthful of overpriced London IPA. But at some point I heard Sacred Harp singing, and in particular a recording that was made at this very church in 1999 and released under the name ‘In Sweetest Union Join’ (here it is on Spotify). I’d never heard humans make a more visceral, soaring sound with just their voices. I scoured the web to see if I could learn to sing this music somewhere in the UK which turned out to be easy enough; the UK Sacred Harp scene had been alive and well for about 15 years before I’d heard of it. I’ve been a Sacred Harp singer ever since, singing as regularly as work allows and eventually teaching the odd singing school here and there. Sacred Harp even found its way into my songwriting and creative output, particularly on The No Testament. Here’s a playlist of the the shapenote-related stuff I’ve recorded.
And so last weekend I found myself wearing the closest I’ve ever got to Sunday best and heading to the Henegar Union Convention in Alabama, where over 200 of us sang over 200 songs in 2 days. In the comedown from an incredible singing I’ve been mulling this over the way Sacred Harp able to be different things to different people. It should go without saying that to perhaps a majority, singing is a devotional practice and ‘singings’ (as singing events are generally known) a time for worship, particularly true in the American south, the style’s heartland. For others singing is therapy; they’ll tell you that there’s no better balm for existential angst than singing Idumea at 100 decibels (‘And am I born to die? / To lay this body down? / And must my trembling spirit fly / Into a world unknown?’) For others singing is simply a time to explore a fascinating musical style combining raw folk hymnody, stately old English plain tunes, gutsy camp meeting songs, intricate 19th century fugues, and much more.
But this coming together for different reasons is only possible due to the openheartedness and mutual respect of the singers for each other. In my experience Sacred Harp singers don’t just tolerate but celebrate the fact that they’ll often find themselves singing with people from radically different backgrounds, with wildly different ideologies, for a myriad of reasons. I’ve never been made to feel more welcome than I was at Henegar Union, with the singing’s organisers making an effort to seek out and chat to all the visiting singers, clearly happy to hear and see how Sacred Harp continues to flourish and grow all over the world.
Oh and the food was off the scale.