A Joyful Noise

 

It’s a cool autumn morning and the grass is still covered in dew. Cars begin to arrive in the parking lot at the Primitive Baptist Church on Bee Road in East Savannah, and people trickle into a small wooden building behind the church. Today is one the Savannah Sacred Harp Singing chapter’s all-day sings—a tribute to the singing conventions of the past when people would come from all over to gather for two or three days at a time to sing, eat and celebrate fellow- ship across the rural South. Some singers have traveled from as far as Charleston and Augusta; one man, Michael Walker, an American living in London who sings regularly in the UK, was visiting his sister in South Carolina and decided to stop by for the day. Everyone agrees that he wins the award for traveling the farthest.

The atmosphere is comfortable and most everyone seems familiar with one another; they joke casually, especially with those who show up late. “Sorry, I overslept,” says one woman as she works her way over to an open chair. “You’d never oversleep if you had a dog like mine,” someone replies, igniting a round of chuckling amongst the people already seated in metal folding chairs with hymn books on their laps.

Sitting here listening to this music seems like the farthest point from the entrapments of modern organized religion; in the age of mega-churches and multi-millionaire evangelists, this group of people coming together to sing—to celebrate faith and fellowship without being self-conscious or pretentious—is both poignant and refreshing.

 

Hundreds of years before The Who released Quadrophenia, effectively squaring the effect of stereophonic sound, Sacred Harp singers were pioneering the technique. “If you have a large group of singers there is more of an impact because the music comes from four directions,” says Gene Pinion, a dedicated Sacred Harp singer who helps organize monthly singing events here in Savannah. “Sometimes when I’m in the middle and I hear these four parts, I can’t sing anything, because it’s a little overwhelming to hear all this music coming at you.”

Sacred Harp singing, also known as Shape-Note singing, takes its name from a songbook, The Sacred Harp—first published in Hamilton, Georgia in 1844— a collection of non-denominational worship songs representing the rich Southern tradition of church music long before the advent of gospel. During the late-19th century, The Sacred Harp was one of two books that could be found in almost every Southern home, second only to the Bible. Although the singing style—which is more primitive and modal than the European musical harmonies and can be quite challenging for the modern ear—diminished in popularity over the course of the 20th century, the songbook itself has been published continuously over the last 150 years. The story of what is now known as Sacred Harp singing, however, goes back much further.

With the minimalist worship-style of the Puritans dominating colonial America, sacred music had been removed from many church services, especially in the Northeast, as the focus shifted toward fire and brimstone sermons rather than community choir practice. But the longstanding ties between worship and music would not be so easily broken, and in an attempt to maintain tradition, musicians and hymn writers began to organize singing schools to teach the American colonists to sing while reinforcing the lessons of Christianity. The do-it-yourself nature of these singing schools attracted a broad spectrum of people, most of whom had no experience reading musical notation, so the shape-note system—which replaced the notes of the scale with different geo- metric shapes—was developed to assist them with learning to read the music.

The music they created was something altogether different from the more refined, scientific musical theories being developed simultaneously across the Atlantic. While Mozart was composing elegant sonatas, the American colonists were coming together to sing a raw, powerful form of music that offered fellowship and community amidst the isolation and uncertainty of the new frontier. It was not music to be performed for people, but was instead a way to bring people together, to lose one’s self in the power of collective sound. Rather than arrange the four vocal parts facing out to an audience as in a traditional choir, the singers were arranged by voice (alto tenor, treble and bass) and organized facing inwards, creating a hollow square at the center, a space where the singers’ voices would build on top of one another, ascending up

to the heavens.
Despite its popularity, shape-note music came under attack during the early

19th century from metropolitan critics who argued that the European style of music was superior to the crude, grassroots Sacred Harp movement taking form. People like Lowell Mason—an American hymn composer and onetime Savannah resident—became advocates of “better music” and fought to ensure that European standards were the model for American music education. As more urbanites hopped on the bandwagon, the singing schools and shape-note songbooks were pushed out to the South and West, taking root in rural com- munities across Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky and Missouri, and by the early 0th century, the music was obsolete and unrecognizable to the average person. During the 1920s, Vanderbilt University professor George Pullen Jackson stumbled across a singing in the Appalachians

sort of feeling that I had happened upon this lost tribe of people who were doing music, and that maybe they were the last people in the world to be doing this. I’d just never heard anything like it before.”

Gene Pinion, who holds the position of Education and Program Manager for the Savannah Music Festival, had a similar feeling the first time he had heard Sacred Harp: “About 10 years ago, I was in a record store in Virginia Beach, Virginia called Planet Music. I found [a CD of Sacred Harp singing] for three dollars. I was just awestruck when I heard this…it was just music that I never heard before. I took it to work with me and had my friends listen to it, and we were just amazed that people would be so engaged in singing music. It’s all about singing that music.” Since that fateful day 10 years ago, Pinion, too, has been all about singing that music, traveling regularly to participate in larger singing conventions outside Savannah, and organizing a regular singing event here the second Saturday of every month at the Primitive Baptist Church

on Bee Road.

*****

Mary Agnes Roberts has been singing Sacred Harp music her entire life. At 83 years old, she has driven down to Savannah from Augusta this fall morning because “[Sacred Harp singing] is something very dear to me,” she explains, and sadly, there are no singing events in Augusta. While 150 miles may seem like a long haul, she remembers back to the 1930s when she and her family would travel over 40 miles to attend a singing convention, and stay with friends for the weekend. “40 miles was a lot farther then than it is now,” she says. “The cars didn’t drive as fast then.”

Today she will lead her favorite song, “Pleyel’s Hymn,” from page 143 of The Sacred Harp. “Now, I’m half drunk, and I’ve got a little bit of a cold,” she jests as she takes her place at the center of the square, starting off the song:

“While Thee I seek, pro-tec-ting Pow’r, Be my vain wish-es stilled. And may this con-se-crat-ed hour with bet-ter hopes be filled.

and commented he thought that he had “discovered” a lost tribe of singers. Matt Hinton, an adjunct professor of religion at Morehouse University,

along with his wife, Erica, recently parlayed seven years of filming Sacred Harp singings across the South into a documentary film titled Awake My Soul. “When I was in high school, maybe in ‘90 or ‘91, I saw a flier somewhere for a Sacred Harp singing that was coming up. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why I thought it would a be good thing to go to it, but I did,” Matt explains. “It was maybe 45 minutes outside Atlanta, in a small primitive Baptist church. Before I got anywhere near the building I could hear the sound coming out, and I was shocked when I got inside, there were only maybe 30 or 40 people singing. It sounded like there were 200 people in the place. I had this striking For over a century, it was only believers in the message that carried on the tradition of the music. However, as Sacred Harp singing has re- emerged over the last 30 years, the music has attracted a crowd interested in it ethnologically as a folk music, particularly in the Northeast. Matt Hinton explains that while his love of the music is partially inspired by the fact that the content affirms his spiritual beliefs, he says he has noticed such a shift while traveling the country promoting his film. “Most Northerners who are singing this music are coming at it from a folk music angle or something like that, some sort of historical perspective and not necessarily from a religious angle,” he says. “There’s something to be said when somebody believes in what they are singing. They are very capable singers up there, and can sing all the songs in the book…but there’s a different feel to it, it’s difficult to describe, and Northerners are very quick to notice the difference, as are Southerners who go up there for singings.”

Oddly, as it grows in popularity around the country—particularly in the Northeast—the tradition has waned substantially in the rural Southern towns that once kept it alive. “In some areas it’s diminishing, particularly in areas where people have sung their whole lives, in rural communities in Georgia and Alabama,” Hinton explains. “It’s only the sort of 80-90 year old folks that are doing it on occasion and they just can’t get enough support because the youngsters, being self-loathing Southerners, have moved off to the big city and don’t want to be associated with this redneck stuff.”

That said, the music is hardly lost amongst the cotton fields and emerging urban centers of the South. Gene Pinion has seen a slow but steady gain in interest at the singings in Savannah over the last couple years. “My experience here in Savannah is that support for it and participation is still there,” he says. “We’ve had singers as young as eight, and we have one lady who comes to sing with us who is 88…People come to sing with us from as far away as Statesboro, Charleston and Augusta. It is very heartfelt by most people who sing it. Most people who sing it are religious people and sing it very spiritually. But then there are many people who are atheists or come from different denominations, or other religions all together, who sing it because of the sheer power of the music, and I think that’s a big draw for people.” Testimony to the fact that there is a great power in Sacred Harp singing is the fact that people are willing to drive over two hours to sing for an afternoon.

 

​For the curious singer interested in experiencing Sacred Harp singing, one shouldn’t be scared off by the alien shape note system; Pinion says the area’s experienced singers are always glad to hear new voices. “Every time we have a singing, there is someone who just pops in,” he says. “They might be apprehensive at first because maybe they don’t know how to read any type of music so we do the best we can to make them feel welcome and introduce them to the shapes and sit them next to somebody who knows what they’re doing. We’re very inclusive in our group, and we always welcome visitors.”

Somewhat ironically, while Shape-Note music was developed to help those who were unfamiliar with reading standard notation, it can still be tricky to learn for beginners. “Some wit once said, ‘there’s only four notes, so if you show up four times, you should get it,’ but it’s more than that,” Pinion jokes. “It takes concentrated effort to get very familiar with the shape notes.”

A humble celebration of faith rather than American Idol-atry, there is a very personal, individual element to the enjoyment of the songs of Sacred Harp. Every person who so desires can take a turn leading a song, choosing his or her favorite songs, the tempo and which verses to sing or repeat. Sacred Harp singing may not lend itself to a large audience, but every song is focused in toward the leader—he or she is the lone audience member, always enjoying the privilege of hearing each song exactly how they want to hear it.

As a new song begins, those listening can hear the different sections of singers rise and fall along with the arrangement. Suddenly, they will all strike a harmony that sustains for a moment and there is a glorious still- ness—voices coming together, like people, to celebrate faith and fellowship, creating a harmony that reflects the message of the music itself. While there are only about 25 people in attendance at this singing in Savannah, they create a joyful noise, and although the roof doesn’t shake and the floor ceases to rumble, every heart is moved.

For Mary Agnes Roberts, the chance to lead a couple of songs is what makes the drive worthwhile: “It gives me a very humble feeling to be able to sing Praises unto God with fellow singers. You are surrounded by such beautiful harmony, and as is written in Psalm 100, make a joyful noise unto the Lord, and in doing so, you feel His presence there with you. There is nothing more enjoyable than to sing Praises to His
Honor and Glory.”