It's hard to define exactly what gives shape note singing -- an early American a cappella gospel music form -- its power. But whatever it is, it's spreading.
Named for a system of musical notation, using triangles (fa), circles (sol), blocks (la) and diamonds (mi) to represent musical tones, shape note singing is often referred to as Sacred Harp singing in honor of the most-used musical text, The Sacred Harp, first published in Alabama in 1844 by Benjamin Franklin White.
Seated for most of the 20th century almost exclusively in the American South, especially in Alabama and Georgia, shape note singing groups have popped up in the past 25 years across New England and the Midwest, in student centers, meeting halls, living rooms and sanctuaries from Minnesota to California to Brooklyn.
And now, shape note singing has been discovered by Hollywood. Last year, director Anthony Minghella and music producer/director T Bone Burnett recorded a traditional shape note singing at the Liberty Baptist Church in Henegar, Ala., for the soundtrack of Minghella's new Civil War film Cold Mountain, starring Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renee Zellweger, due to be released in December.
The seat next to you
The seat next to you
... Hooting sounds composed in heaven with a thunder greater than any chorus of angels. Sharing 'round the pain of dying by singing it right down in the face. Living and singing with the people who were (and are) too stubborn to trade in the beautiful for the acceptable. To be part of a remnant in time, attached to the roots of a great old tree and given the chance to partake in its nurture. For this there are no words -- only hints. To understand, go. GO!
These words by Keith Willard, a Sacred Harp singer from Minneapolis, Minn., first published in the music journal Prairie Harmony, begin to reveal the nature of a Sacred Harp singing. Singers are careful to point out that this is participatory music, not performance music, and that fellowship with other singers is central to the experience.
At a Sacred Harp singing, four groups of singers sit facing inward to form a "hollow square." A volunteer leader stands in the middle and calls out the song number, then a pitch is set by a volunteer on the front row of the tenor section. Leaders set the pace and rhythm of the song with a simple up-and-down arm movement, turning to face, in turn, the trebles, the altos, the basses and the tenors. Men and women sing all of the parts, with the exception of bass where a rare few women have been known to be able to reach the notes.
Each song is sung through once using only the names of the shapes -- fa, sol, la and mi -- and is then sung with the words. The sound that arises is loud and boisterous, a far cry from the controlled tones of a typical church choir. The songs range from simple, simultaneous four-part harmonies to "fuguing" songs, vigorous multi-part songs that sound like traditional rounds. Sacred Harp tunes can be jubilant and uplifting, and they can be as mournful as the setting sun. They are usually sung at full volume at a relatively quick pace.
A memorial service is held during the singing convention to remember singers who have passed away in the previous year. As a participant at the recent National Sacred Harp Convention in Birmingham, Ala., put it: "You never know when the seat next to you will be empty."
On Sept. 26, 27 and 28, shape note singing will pour forth from Niwot and Boulder, Colo., where the 14th annual Rocky Mountain Sacred Harp Convention will be held. Beginners, experienced singers and listeners alike are welcome to attend.
On Friday night, a singing school will be held in Boulder to teach the basics of reading the shapes and to introduce newcomers to the music. David and Kathy Lee of Hoboken, Ga., members of one of the most respected families in the tradition, will lead the workshop.
Saturday and Sunday, all-day singing and dinner on the grounds will be held in the Grange Hall at the corner of Second and Franklin in Niwot, Colo., northeast of Boulder. Singing will begin at 9:30 a.m. both days with a potluck dinner at noon. The singing will end at 3 p.m. both days. Listeners should feel free to come for part or all of the singing.
Singing school with David and Kathy Lee of Hoboken, Ga.
Friday, Sept. 26, 7-9 p.m.
3119 Ninth St., Boulder
To learn more about Sacred Harp or shape note singing in Colorado and across the U.S., visit www.fasola.org.
The 14th Annual Rocky Mountain Sacred Harp Convention
Saturday, Sept. 27 and Sunday, Sept. 28, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day; dinner on the grounds each day at noon
The Left Hand Grange, Niwot, Colo. (NE of Boulder, corner of Second and Franklin in Niwot)