Sacred Harp Singing vanishing from South Alabama

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 3, 2005

The sound is so distinct and haunting; there is nothing quite like it.

When you hear the drifting harmonies that ring and reverberate from the rafters of an old wooden church, it can lift your heart, your spirit and your mind away from the cares of the world.

Sacred harp singing is a true Southern tradition.

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On Thursday, July 21, the Loeb Reception Center, located in Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, was the site for the 19th annual Capitol City Shape Note Singing.

It was sponsored by the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, which is a division of the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

"I thoroughly enjoyed the sacred harp singing on Thursday.

I'm just sorry that I was not able to stay until it was over," Wanda Stinson, of Greenville, said. "My grandmother liked to go to the singings in Chilton County.

She sang around the house.

Many times I would hear her singing in the kitchen when she was preparing those delicious country meals I grew up on.

The songs I remember the most were 'Passing Away,' 'Wayfaring Stranger,' 'When I Can Read My Title Clear' and 'Angel Band,'" Stinson said. She attended the singing with her mother, Myrtle Crumpton Hayes, and her husband, Willie Stinson, also of Greenville.

With approximately 50 people in attendance throughout the day, the heart of the shape-note tradition proved still to be beating.

There were four shape-note books used during the day at this particular singing.

The singing itself is all acappella; there are no musical instruments save the human voice.

Singers believe that the voice is the "sacred harp" of the mind, body and soul; therefore, no musical instruments are needed.

The singing comes from the heart; it is not a competition but a compilation of voices.

With the singers arranged in what is known as a "hollow square," one will find four sections divided into trebles, altos, tenors and basses. One person, a key man or woman, sounds the first notes for each section until everyone finds his or her sound.

The notes are sung first, and then the words are sung, with the chorus often repeated.

"It's so good to see you!"

That is a very common phrase heard at a sacred harp singing.

Singers gather from all over the United States, sometimes with visitors from Great Britain as well.

At the Capitol City Singing, people from all over the state of Alabama attended, with some singers driving in from Mississippi.

"We're so glad to see everyone here today," Bill Hogan, of Mississippi, said. Hogan enjoys Christian Harmony singing as well as traditional shape-note singing.

The traditional "dinner-on-the-grounds" could not be executed on this particular day because it is a mid-week singing, while most conventions are regularly held on Saturdays or Sundays.

"We have found that it is easier for us to walk to a corner restaurant or to bring a sack lunch whenever we come here," Stanley Smith, of Ozark, said. Smith is the chairman of the Revision Committee for the B.F. White Sacred Harp songbook.

He has been singing since he was a teenager. "Since this singing is held in the middle of the week, and everyone has to drive from so far away, it's just not feasible to bring dishes," Smith said.

Of course, the home-cooked meals are not the only major draw to sacred harp singings.

With song titles such as Schenectady, David's Lamentation, The Infant's Request and Murillo's Lesson, the words and music ring in the singer's head.

"The hill of Zion yields A thousand sacred sweets, Before we reach the heavenly fields, Or walk the golden streets……Then let our songs abound, and every tear be dry; We're marching thro' Immanuel's ground To fairer worlds on high."

However, sacred harp singing is not just for singers.

Plenty of listeners attend and get just as much enjoyment out of the day as those who sing to their hearts' content. As the class sang Angel Band, Mrs. Myrtle Hayes, of Greenville, closed her eyes and gently rocked back and forth while mouthing the words to the song.

Sacred harp is truly a balm for the soul.

"Your company's sweet, your union dear, Your words delightful to my ear, Yet when I see that we must part, You draw like cords around my heart."

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