THE first thing I notice is that there are men here - as many as
there are women. Public singing by blokes, in the male-voice choir,
was part of the landscape when I grew up in Wales, but I can't
remember the last time I was in a church with an even gender
balance. Never, probably.
I can't remember, either, the last time I had an experience in
church that was as affecting as this would turn out to be. No one
preached. No one even prayed. But someone definitely stirred the
St George's, Bloomsbury, has a concert list that stretches from
rock to Baroque, but there is no concert tonight. People stream in,
and sit in four sections around a central square. A softly spoken
American man enters, offers a welcome, and announces: "This is not
a performance. This is not a rehearsal. This is the thing."
The "thing" is Sacred Harp shape-note singing, America's
earliest independent music of European de-scent. A distinctive
combination of traditional song and hymnody, it first became
popular in singing schools, whose purpose was the correct
understanding of religious music - religious music as it was
understood in the country parishes of 18th-century England.
"Shape notes", written down, resemble the standard round notes
that any musician will recognise. But the head of each note has one
of four shapes to indicate its interval from the key note. The
four-shape system (fa = triangle; sol = oval; la = square; mi =
diamond) enabled - still enables, as I was to discover - musically
untrained singers to sight-read music.
Over time, this a cappella style fused with local
southern music, deviating from European tastes with a stark but
robust infusion from the folk tradition. "White spirituals" some
called them (somewhat curiously, since the form has a black
THE number of hymn-books that adopted the system demonstrate its
value. The Kentucky Harmony was the first, in 1816,
followed by the 1820 book used by Abraham Lincoln, The Missouri
Harmony. Later titles reveal the geographical popularity of
the form, but by the time of Southern Harmony (1835) and
The Sacred Harp (1844), the non-classical deviation was
too much for the metropolitan churches in the north, which
reintroduced a sweeter, stricter European style.
Shape notes were still used, but in a more refined seven-figured
system. When the Civil War broke out, the Sacred Harp - a
sanctified term in the south for the human voice - was sung almost
exclusively below the Mason-Dixon line. It has been in continuous
use there ever since - longer than any other hymn-book,
I first heard songs from its pages on Harry Smith's album
Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection that
launched the folk revival and inspired Bob Dylan and others in the
1950s. It carried two rousing numbers by the Alabama Sacred Harp
Singers, made in 1928: "Rocky Road" and "Present Joys".
The haunting sound was, I discovered, taken from a rare field
recording, since Sacred Harp singers did not perform for an
audience. Singings are community experiences, shared and
participatory. I live an ocean away from the Appalachian mountains;
so it was not something that I was going to be able to pursue,
however enchanting the sound.
In the new digital world, however, community is not restricted
by geography. Members of the folk tradition in the United States
found that, because of the simplicity of the notation, and with
enough visits to the south, they could teach the method not just to
other musicians, but to anyone who was interested in singing.
A CURIO at first, the form began to spread once more, reaching
its cousin tradition in the UK. (The singer Cerys Matthews was the
presenter of a Radio 4 programme about the genre on Monday, which
is still available on BBC iPlayer.) There are now a thriving
British network, and a London Sacred Harp group that meets three
times a month to sing.
One of these sessions is aimed specifically at beginners. Its
website announces: "Although this is sacred music, we welcome all
and practice (and expect) tolerance and respect for all singers,
irrespective of belief or lack thereof, and we never ask anyone
about their religion or politics. Indeed: this is one of the more
diverse and welcoming singing groups you will ever come across."
I'm there in droves.
I don't know where to sit, though. I tentatively perch at the
back of one of four sections of pews that face a hollow square.
Despite the tip-off on the website, I assume that the people
streaming into the church - young hipsters, old hippies, and
everything in between - must be on the way through to some other
event downstairs. But as they begin to take seats, they offer nods
of welcome, and someone suggests that I sit in the section that
faces the altar. It is not like being welcomed on a Sunday morning
- all smiles and no laughing. It's like being made welcome.
My section is for tenors, which I'm told is the best place for a
beginner. To the left of the square sit the basses. Opposite me are
the altos, and, to my right, the trebles. Someone passes me a fat,
oblong book, and there it is in gold type, The Sacred
Harp. As I begin to leaf, bewildered, through a section
entitled "Rudiments of music", a man enters the square, having read
my - and perhaps every beginner's - thoughts. His name is Aldo
Ceresa, and he is visiting from a Sacred Harp group in New York. He
and another American, Michael Walker, who is based in London, will
be our teachers for the evening.
"BEWILDERMENT is normal," Aldo says. "This is a form devised for
people who attended church every Sunday. It will take a while. It
will probably take you six months. But it won't take you as long as
a classical-music education. And you will be able to join in
He then begins to talk about the key community component of
Sacred Harp in a way that exactly mirrors the music. It turns out
that it will take us a while. But we are friendly. And, tonight, we
will make a start at the pub.
The learning is learning, and better done than talked about, but
some important principles emerge. Everything is done in full voice,
and singing fortissimo (extra loud) on the beat matters more than
hitting the right note.
If we were interested in perfect execution, we would be singing
sweetly in the north. But rhythm matters. Whoever is leading the
class - and it changes, song by song - needs to beat it out in the
air, as do the front rows of each section. Without rhythm, there is
no drive or pulse. Without drive or pulse, there is no shape
For most of this, I am still bewildered, as predicted. I mix up
my square "las" and my triangle "fas" as we go through some scales,
but this is expected. "Just sing 'fla', Aldo says. "I still do,
sometimes." This matters, because each song begins with its lines
sung out "fa", "sol", "la", "mi", rather than with its actual
words. It helps everyone to get the tune.
Eventually, we ready ourselves for a song. Aldo picks one I know
as "Amazing Grace", rendered in Sacred Harp as "45t New Britain".
In the book, each hymn is prefixed with a Bible verse; "45t" has 1
Chronicles 17.16: "And David the king came and sat before the Lord,
and said, Who am I, O Lord?" By the time we've finished, I feel
just as humbled.
THE sound is like nothing I have ever heard before - and I grew
up in a Welsh chapel. It's as deep as funeral music, but feels like
a resurrection. When Michael invites newcomers into the hollow
square to get the full surround-sound experience, my insides crack
like a flagstone.
This time, it's "354t Lebanon": "Oh turn us, turn us, mighty
Lord, by thy resistless grace", but although the moment feels
unutterably, overwhelmingly holy, I don't know that the words have
much to do with it. I feel like Naaman risen from the Jordan. Like
Elijah as the fire falls from the sky. I cannot, ever, not do
In the pub afterwards - and we all go - I ask Aldo about the
difference a faith makes to the experience.
"We have people of all faiths and none, as you'll find out," he
says. "But what's interesting is that the agnostics say that the
music cannot be denuded of its religion. Some of these are folk
tunes, and we could find non-religious words, but its power is its
Michael agrees. "I play organ in a church, and I'm a believer,
but I'm fascinated by the effect this music has on people who don't
believe. What is it that means, after singing, that these people
want to form such a close community? If we talked religion here,
I'd say it was something like mission."
Eimear, a regular whose deep bass belies his lanky frame, sees
it differently. "The form is profound; but this music was helped by
people who weren't religious. It was dying out in the south, and
then the folk tradition got hold of it. Then the punks, who wanted
something with the same intensity," he says.
This strikes a distorted chord with me: having bashed about in
several ropey punk bands, I can see exactly why my New York
counterparts were drawn to this raucous sound that their folk
friends had fetched up from the south.
"Community is something we all want, and this is how we allow
ourselves to have it," Eimear says. "Singing full voice, facing
each other, is a way of being vulnerable with each other."
THERE is something more than religion in the words, too. Sarah
regularly drives up from Sussex for the session, and tomorrow will
go to Buckinghamshire for an all-day singing. You could call her a
"Look at how much death is in these songs," she says. "The
tradition has a big focus on mourning, and one of the things that's
happening is that we become a place that allows ourselves these
thoughts. Death is excluded from most social conversation. We fear
it and flee it. In these hymns, we look it in the eye."
I ask another shy newcomer what she made of it, and how
comfortable she was with the religious texts. "Something happened
that made me feel like I was part of something bigger," she
replies. "I don't think it matters whether you call that 'God', or
'community', or the 'collective unconscious'. When all those hands
were going up to the beat, I kept having to tell myself: 'Not a
cult, not a cult, not a cult,' because it looks so weird, but what
I do know is that this is me, now, for ever."
A similar expression is found in the US, where traditional
Sacred Harp churches in the south find themselves visited by
northern newcomers in search of the authentic shape-note
experience. As interest in the form grew, the film director Matt
Hinton made a film, Awake My Soul, in an attempt to
capture the experience. He later called it a rare example of "blue
state/red state harmony".
Given Sacred Harp's subject matter - pilgrims, graves, sin, and
the blood of Christ - its survival outside the Church is pretty
startling. Even inside it, we tend to veer away from such language.
Equally, its musical style could be said to be obsolete by two
centuries, while its notation looks like unevolved
And yet it is also democratic, in a fresh way; non-performative,
with no identifiable location of power - as counter-cultural in its
modernity as its tradition.
Could it be a model? "Although this is sacred," I remember the
website saying, "we welcome all and practice (and expect) tolerance
and respect for all . . . irrespective of be- lief or lack
thereof." The result: "One of the more diverse and welcoming groups
you will ever come across." Amen.