Dahlonega Sacred Harp
The Dahlonega Sacred Harp group meets every other Tuesday from 7 to 8:45 pm in the Vickery House on the UNG campus. To get announcements about singings, join our Facebook group , Sacred Harp Dahlonega, or contact Esther Morgan-Ellis to get put on the email list.
We sing out of the 1991 Denson revision of The Sacred Harp, a shape-note tunebook first published in 1844. Sacred Harp singing is a distinctly Southern tradition that now has practitioners around the world. You can read about it below, but you can’t really understand what it’s all about without experiencing a singing first hand. Come join us! All are welcome.
About Shape-Note Singing
The tradition that would come to be known as shape-note singing has its roots in eighteenth-century New England. It was developed in response to dissatisfaction with lined-out hymnody, which church music reformers considered to be drab. They yearned for a more complex and energetic style of congregational music, sung not in unison but in four-part harmony. For this to be possible however, however, churchgoers needed to be able to read music.
Shape-note singing gets its name from the fact that it is printed using shaped noteheads instead of the more-typical round noteheads. Each shape corresponds with a solfege syllable, which in turn is associated with a scale degree, or specific note in a musical scale. The idea of associating syllables with scale degrees is about one thousand years old, and it has persisted because it is a powerful music-reading tool. Solfege was invented in the early eleventh century by an Italian monk known as Guido of Arezzo, who also pioneered staff notation. The latter allowed melodies to be committed to paper, while the former helped with the reading and memorizing of those melodies. In the shape-note tradition, only four syllables are used, even though there are seven scale degrees. This is because the solfege syllables outline patterns of intervals between notes, and those patterns of intervals repeat. Beginning with the 1802 publication of The Easy Instructor, by William Smith and William Little, differently-shaped noteheads we printed to correspond with the various syllables. This made music reading even easier, for it eliminated the need to understand clefs or decipher key signatures.
Even before the system of shapes was invented, church music reformers were using the four-syllable system to spread music literacy. Educated young men with musical talent established themselves as itinerant singing masters, travelling from town to town to offer singing schools. A school was usually two weeks in length, and was offered during seasons when there was little farm work to be done. Participants in a singing school would learn how to read music and be offered the chance to purchase tunebooks (likely published by the singing master himself). Singing schools also served an important social function—particularly for young men and women, who had few opportunities to mix socially without a chaperone present. When the singing master departed, he left behind a community of singers who could read music in four-part harmony. He was reimbursed for his trouble by means of tuition fees and book sales.
The hymns written by singing masters had many unusual characteristics. These composers self-consciously rejected European tradition: They wanted to create music that was original, innovative, and decidedly American. And when they did adopt European practices, such as the use of the four-syllable system, they tended to be old-fashioned. For example, in shape-note songs, the melody is not in the high female voice (the soprano or, to use the shape-note term, treble voice), but rather in the tenor (the high male voice). Although this was characteristic of early European church music, the practice had largely been abandoned by the 18th century. Shape-note composers also ignored the conventions of harmony and voice leading, preferring instead to follow their intuition and draw inspiration from natural sounds and settings. As a result, shape-note songs are full of musical irregularities that lend them a unique sound.
In the early 19th century, shape-note singing began to lose popularity in New England. As northeastern cities grew in size and sophistication, music reformers sought to adopt modern European practices—including a more refined style of hymn-singing, complete with organ accompaniment. However, shape-note singing flourished in the South, where a new generation of singing masters, composers, and publishers continued to develop and popularize the repertoire and its associated practices. Southern composers were soon publishing their own tunebooks. One of the most important volumes, The Southern Harmony, was published in 1835 by William Walker, a singing master from South Carolina. However, it was Walker’s brother-in-law Benjamin Franklin White who, in collaboration with fellow Georgia resident Elisha J. King, would in 1844 publish the most successful of all shape-note tunebooks, The Sacred Harp.
White and King’s tunebook quickly gained an avid following. The first convention dedicated to singing out of The Sacred Harp was organized in Upson County, Georgia, in 1845, and the tunebook remained in constant use even through the Civil War. White himself oversaw revisions in 1850, 1859, and 1869 (King died almost immediately after the initial publication). After White’s death, other singers took on the task of editing and publishing new editions of The Sacred Harp. Each revision introduced new songs and eliminated old songs that were no longer commonly sung, meaning that the volume always reflected the tastes of the singing community. However, without White at the helm, revisions produced by different singers entered into competition with one another, and tunebooks with The Sacred Harp printed on the cover could no longer be trusted to contain standardized contents. Eventually, singers coalesced around two editions, known after their early editors as the Cooper revision and the Denson revision. Although the two revisions share more than half of their contents in common, the Cooper also includes a large number of songs in the newer gospel style, which emerged after the Civil War. These songs tend to be cheerful in affect, with swinging rhythms and passages of call-and-response.
The Sacred Harp has remained in use into the present day, and both the Denson and Cooper editions continue to be revised and printed. Although some practitioners feared that Sacred Harp singing, as it is called, faced extinction in the mid-20th century, a widespread revival in the 1980s attracted new singers from outside of the South, and today there are communities of singers throughout the United States and in Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, France, Germany, Holland, Norway, Sweden, Poland, South Korea, and Japan. Participation in Sacred Harp singing, however, means much more than just singing out of The Sacred Harp. It means adhering to practices and values that are unique to the shape-note tradition, most of which date to the early 19th century.
Sacred Harp singers come together at various local and regional singings that take place throughout the year. The smallest of these are weekly “practice” singings, which are informal gatherings of singers who live in the same area. “Annual” singings are formal, all-day events that attract participants from considerable distances. They include elements such as opening and closing prayers, a memorial lesson (during which those who are sick or have died are remembered), and dinner on the grounds (a lavish midday meal provided by the hosts). Conventions—to participate in which singers might travel great distances—are two- or three-day events organized along the same lines.
Although singings vary in size, length, and formality, the basic practice of singing a song is always the same. To begin with, participants form what is called the hollow square, with singers in each of the four sections facing a central point. There is no single “leader”; instead, individual singers take turns calling and leading songs from the center of the square. Once a song has been announced (always by its page number, not its title), a designated singer will key the song, or give starting pitches for each section. This is important, since Sacred Harp singing does not incorporate instruments. The keyer does not try to sound the pitches notated on the page, but rather selects suitable pitches based on the melodic ranges of each part. Next, the leader starts the song, establishing the tempo by moving one arm up and down. Although the leader will select which verses are to be sung, participants always begin by singing the syllables. If a song is particularly complicated the leader might cue the entrance of individual parts, but usually the singers are confident and need little guidance. After a song is over, a new leader takes the center and calls the next song.
For many listeners, the most striking characteristic of Sacred Harp practice is the singing style. In general, participants sing as loud as they can, producing a sound that could be described as raw or unadorned. Singers do not use vibrato, and they seldom vary the volume. Indeed, it might be argued that they sing in a way that reflects no sensitivity to the meaning of the text or shape of the musical phrase. However, this is to apply an inappropriate metric, as Sacred Harp singers engage with the music emotionally—and often physically—at a particularly intense level.
Traditional shape-note songs assume three basic forms. The first is the strophic hymn, or plain tune, which is likely familiar to anyone who comes from a hymn-singing tradition. In this type of song, several verses are sung to the same melody, and all four voice parts (treble, alto, tenor, and bass) sing at all times. “Windham,” composed by Connecticut tunebook publisher Daniel Read (1757–1836) in 1785, is a fine example. Like so many American hymns of the era, it sets the words of Isaac Watts. The text concerns the immanence of death—a common theme throughout The Sacred Harp. Finally, the song is in the minor mode, meaning that is uses a scale with several pitches lowered in comparison to the more common major scale. Most Western listeners hear minor-mode music as being sad or serious. Later gospel hymn writers would largely abandon the minor mode, and it is also uncommon in most mainstream hymn-singing traditions, but it was favored by shape-note composers. Our recording was made by Alan Lomax at the Alabama Sacred Harp Singing Convention in Birmingham in 1942. Characteristically, the singers slide between pitches while producing a bright, powerful sound.
Some strophic hymns contain a refrain, or a passage of repeating text that usually occupies the second half of the melody. “Bound for Canaan,” for example, contains three verses, but each concludes with the refrain “I’m on my way to Canaan, To the new Jerusalem.” This major-mode song was composed by King for inclusion in the first edition of The Sacred Harp, although the fourth voice part (the alto) was not added until 1902. It sets a 1793 text by John Leland (1754–1841), a Baptist minister from Massachusetts, that is used in no fewer than six Sacred Harp songs. The appearance of a single text paired with multiple tunes is typical of the tradition. For example, the Newton text “Amazing Grace” appears twice in The Sacred Harp: Once, as “New Britain,” with the melody that is familiar to most people today, and once, as “Jewett,” set to quite a different melody and with a refrain that begins “Shout, shout for glory.” (In our example, “Jewett” is being used as a “callback” song at the conclusion of a break during the 2020 Ireland Sacred Harp Convention.) Individual lines from “Amazing Grace” also appear in other songs. All of this reflects the influence of oral tradition.
Although The Sacred Harp contains many of these plain tunes, students in singing schools became proud of their ability to read and carry independent parts, and they wanted something more challenging to sing. To satisfy this need, singing masters wrote fuguing tunes. These unusual songs begin with all four voice parts singing together, but following a resting point or cadence the voices reenter one at a time, most often with the same text and music as one another. The texture is similar to that of an 18th-century keyboard fugue—thus, the name “fuguing tune.” Because each voice part enters at a different time, singers need to be confident in their own rhythms and pitches, with the result that fuguing tunes are considerably more challenging to sing than traditional hymns. “Evening Shade,” written in 1805 by New England singing master Stephen Jenks (1772–1856), is a straightforward example of a fuguing tune. The 1792 text by Leland, typical of The Sacred Harp, warns the singer that “The night of death is near.”
Finally, shape-note composers wrote extended odes and anthems, which are long and highly variable in terms of form and texture. They often include passages in which one or more of the voice parts is omitted, and also feature internal repeats and changes in meter, making them the most difficult to lead and sing. One of the most frequently sung anthems is “Easter Anthem,” composed by Boston singing master William Billings (1746–1800) in 1787. Billings, along with Read, was the most influential early shape-note composer, and did much to establish the style and conventions of shape-note hymnody. Edward Young’s text, first published about four decades earlier, draws from Corinthians and the Gospel of Luke.
Bealle, John. Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.
Caudle, Judy. Sacred Harp Singings: 2020 Minutes and 2021 Directory. Alabama: Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association, 2021.
Cobb, Buell E., Jr. The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978.
Goff, James R., Jr. Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Marini, Stephen A. Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
Miller, Kiri. Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
Steel, David Warren, with Richard H. Hulan. The Makers of the Sacred Harp. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.