Even though it has been my intention to do so for years, I have finally contacted the local St. Louis Sacred Harp singing group. To be exact, they are actually called the St. Louis Shape Note Singers. For those of us who are Primitive Baptists, we are quite familiar with what "sacred harp singing" is...even though there are a few differences from the singing done in our worship services.
It is called Sacred Harp because most singers use a book (or hymnal) called "The Sacred Harp". And it is sometimes called Shape Note Singing because...you probably guessed it: the shape of the note on the page allows the singer to know what note to sing. A triangle indicates a "Fa", a circle indicates a "So", a square indicates a "La", and so on. There are no instruments accompanying the singing, and all of the participants sit in a "hollow square." Most selections are fugues sung in four part harmony...very loud four part harmony, I might add.
If you are attending a Sacred Harp gathering for the first time, you might have many questions. (Why in the world are they singing so loudly? Why are the singers moving their arms like that? Why are they sitting in a square? What's all the jibberish in the first verse?) It might be best for first-timers to check out this handy Beginners Guide. Or, better yet, you can look over all of the interesting information on a web site maintained by the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association.
Most people either love it or hate it. It's somewhat difficult to describe. So, it's best just to give it a listen to determine what you think. Check out a sample from a singing in Alabama or this one from a singing in Minnesota. Here's yet another from another singing in Alabama.
Sound familiar? You may recognize this type of music from the battle scene and the church scene in the 2003 film, Cold Mountain. I am looking forward to joining the St. Louis group for a singing later this month. An update will be provided soon.