catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 5 :: 2007.03.09 — 2007.03.23


Speaking in song

“…be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:18-19)

Weekends for my family often involve loading up our car with our hymnals and a dish of green beans or a blackberry cobbler and driving 40 miles or so to join others in singing from The Sacred Harp, a collection of shaped note hymns published in 1844. Some of the singings we attend have been occurring for the past 150 years. And some of the singers in their nineties recall arriving on horseback or being carried as a young child by their grandmother, this music being one of their earliest memories. Though neither my husband nor I were raised in this tradition, we are drawn to it in much the same way as those who hold hymnals which are tattered, stained and worn from years of use. And despite differences in hometowns, backgrounds and age, there is a bond among us through this music known as Sacred Harp.

Recently, my husband, Matt, and I completed a seven year-long project, a documentary on the subject of Sacred Harp singing. While we did our best to present a clear picture of the history of the tradition, as well as a glimpse into the lives of those who have preserved it, we are still often asked what it is about this music that fills us with the desire to sing it as often as possible. What makes a couple in their early 30’s long to be part of a community that, in large part, is made up of men and women older than our own parents? While there are participants who find pleasure in it for the sake of its historicity, for us, it is worship: as the early Christians in Ephesus were encouraged, “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:18-19).

In fact, one of Sacred Harp’s most distinctive features is the physical arrangement of the singers. We are divided into four parts (treble, tenor, alto, bass) and everyone faces the center, also known as the hollow square, where singers take turns leading a song of their choosing. When you sing, you face other singers. Sitting in this square, singing the same words and singing them right at each other is a constant reminder that we are surrounded by brothers and sisters who share the truths we hold dear to us. As one Georgia singer has remarked, “This is how we love one another.” It’s as if we’re reminding each other in song of Christ’s love and mercy and encouraging one another to live for Him as we “speak to one another in psalms and hymns.” More than most forms of music, the sound of Sacred Harp music is difficult to describe to others (one of the reasons we made a film about it). Upon hearing it for the first time, most people use adjectives such as ‘powerful,’ ‘haunting,’ and almost without fail, ‘loud.’ While the sound is unique due to a blend of Appalachian and medieval tonalities, perhaps the community of singers is more unique still. 

This shared experience is strengthened by the intergenerational nature of Sacred Harp singings. I often sit with women over twice my age and I consider these women my friends and am honored to be considered theirs. In a culture where youth is so highly valued, there are very few contexts in which the elderly are both respected and embraced. But at a singing, when an older singer stands up to share his memories associated with a particular song, the room quiets and everyone listens. At the lunch break in the middle of a day-long singing, one often looks for the opportunity to connect with one of these older singers. Talking with them is not out of duty, it’s out of desire. In the course of making our film, my husband and I conducted interviews with at least 30 people. By far, the most memorable experiences are those where we spent time with older singers. It was a true privilege to be able to document their stories and preserve some of what they wish to share with a younger generation who will hopefully carry on the tradition. This music erases many of the strictures of old age, not only in relationships but in other ways as well. A particular singer in her nineties who is now deceased comes to mind. Seeing the great effort it took for her to walk from one side of a small church to the other, it was clear that her physical condition was a burden to her in most areas of her life. Sitting in a chair, she appeared so small and feeble that one wondered if she would be able to stand and lead a song when called upon. But once she was upright and immersed in the music, the most amazing transformation took place before our eyes. What was once a hunched back was nearly erect and her bowed head now looked to the heavens. Her face was full of such joy. Her old age, her frailty and her pain seemed to be erased and a peace that could only come from God washed over her. She was not just singing, she was “making melody in [her] heart to the Lord.”

I believe that it is God’s presence in this music that has allowed it to endure. Surely, it is also God’s presence at these singings which creates such faithful followers and allows the singers to feel such a strong connection with one another. On numerous occasions, I have been to singings where terminally ill individuals have gone to great pains to be present. They have turned to this tradition for comfort in their dying days and they have found it in the songs as well as in the community of singers. When you see how profoundly this music affects people, it is nearly impossible to sing these songs without reflecting on what these words mean, and what they mean to those who choose to sing them. Although many of the hymns date back to the 18th century, I find that they remain relevant today. And while the words to many Sacred Harp songs remind us of our brokenness and our need for mercy (Melt, melt this frozen heart, this stubborn will subdue, “Abbeville”), I notice that the songs most often chosen by older singers focus on the inevitability of death (Our life is ever on the wing, And death is ever nigh; the moment when our lives begin, We all begin to die, “Fleeting Days”), a death that they know is not far off (A few more days on earth to spend, And all my toils and cares shall end, “The Christian’s Hope”). And they sing with raw earnestness:

Why should we start and fear to die?
What tim’rous worms we mortals are!
Death is the gate to endless joy,
And yet we dread to enter there.

They sing with warning:

Young people all, attention give
And hear what I shall say;
I wish your souls with Christ to live in everlasting day.
Remember you are hast’ning on
To death’s dark, gloomy shade;
Your joys on earth will soon be gone,
Your flesh in dust be laid. 

It is clear that with age has come wisdom. What is most striking about those singing about the end of their lives drawing near is that they sing not out of fear but out of anticipation; they recognize that the best is yet to come. At a Sacred Harp singing, there is a longing for Heaven that is not only expressed through words, it is written all over our faces. For the hope of our elders is almost contagious when they sing,

I’m going to a better land,
Where troubles are unknown,
All sorrow will be gone,
We’ll sing around the throne in sweet accord,
Adoring Jesus, our dear Lord.
(“The Better Land”)

Despite many of the songs’ emphasis on death and their minor keys, there is an overarching joy that’s an integral part of the Sacred Harp experience. Although some of the songs convey a sadness at the prospect that we may never meet again in this life, they also reflect our hope of a glorious reunion:

O glorious day! O blessed hope!
My soul leaps forward at the thought.
When, on that happy, happy land,
We’ll no more take the parting hand.
But with our blessed holy Lord
We’ll shout and sing with one accord,
And there we’ll all with Jesus dwell,
So, loving Christians, fare you well.
  (“Parting Hand”)

It is with bittersweet anticipation that we hope to dwell within this community and raise our children in the tradition, baking many cobblers and driving countless miles, for we know that our love for these singers will only increase, but with coming years, we will see many pass on before us. And like those who often share their memories of singers who have passed on, I hope that we, too, will have many stories to share. Certainly, God has disclosed Himself to me in countless ways already through this music and I think I have a clearer vision of just how glorious Heaven is going to be.

For more about Sacred Harp singing and Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, a film by Matt and Erica Hinton, please visit

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