Unbeknownst to many, the oldest form of written music in America is gaining international appeal. It’s a form of shape note music called Sacred Harp singing— a style of music built upon 200 years of rich history and just one instrument: the human voice.
To perform Sacred Harp, singers face each other in what's called a “hollow square” formation. Each voice part makes up one side of the square: trebles sit on the right side, altos on the backside, bass on the left, and tenors on the front side.
The experience means something different to each singer. Vocalists often credit this type of music with evoking great emotion. Judy Mincey, a Sacred Harp singer from Georgia, has traveled across the United States and Europe to attend singing gatherings.
“For me it’s a spiritual exercise," she says. "The songs just take you out of time, and it’s very special. There’s joy and sometimes there’s overwhelming sorrow. The Hollow Square is a sacred space."
What's most unique is how the music is read. While Sacred Harp appears, at first glance, to be similar to conventional musical notation, the note-heads have different shapes than standard oval notes to help singers sight-read unfamiliar tunes.
Shape note singing started in New England in the 1700s before gradually making its way to the southern United States where unschooled rural farmers are credited with preserving it. Today, the American tradition brings communities together all around the world. Documented singing groups are active in more than 35 U.S. states and nearly 10 countries.
The Sacred Harp Hymnal was published in Hamilton, Ga. in 1844, with the first known singing convention taking place a year later at Long Cane Baptist Church. In the Sacred Harp Hymnal, “Amazing Grace How Sweet the Sound” appears in two side-by-side versions: song note and the more commonly recognized “Amazing Grace” performed today.
Jesse P. Karlsberg, vice president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, is a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. He studies the contemporary spread of Sacred Harp singing.
According to Karlsberg, Sacred Harp singing during the 20th Century was confined to the South, where singers were connected by kinship, attending the same church or living in the same community. Karlsberg attributes Sacred Harp’s spread to folklorists and music scholars who later discovered it and felt it should be shared beyond the local communities where it was practiced.
He says, “In addition to encompassing members of a wide range of churches and religious affiliations, you now have people who have no religious affiliation. Whether it’s sung in Georgia or in Ireland or Poland, we still have a really powerful experience that I think has the same effect on people no matter the location."
In addition to being sung hundreds of years after its origination, new songs are still being created. Raymond Hamrick, the oldest living composer of Sacred Harp music, has composed hundreds of songs in “The Georgian Harmony” and “The Sacred Harp.” At 98 years old, Hamrick continues composing today. Hamrick’s interest in Sacred Harp began with his fascination for its history. His oldest song book in his collection dates back to 1803. According to Karlsberg, that’s what makes Hamrick exceptional, “Almost everyone in Sacred Harp is wonderful, but Raymond is unique. “He’s the only singer of his generation who decided he needed to figure out the history of the music for himself.”
Hamrick says he’s not a musician and he’s never had any formal training in writing music. His ability to write comes purely through inspiration. “I’d be sitting there reading and then all of a sudden there’d be a tune in my head and I’d have to stop what I was doing and write it down,” Hamrick says.
Karlsberg says Hamrick is being modest, “He’s one that everyone looks to tell us about the history of this music, like what singings were like before we were all born.” Many Sacred Harp singers credit Hamrick with penning their favorite tunes. Hamrick’s song, “Lloyd” is one of the most often sung pieces at singings around the world today. Known globally, Karlsberg believes composing is Hamrick’s gift, “His music is inspired. It moves people… brings them to tears,” says Karlsberg, “His songs change people’s lives.” Hamrick hopes those songs will continue to resonate for centuries to come.
Emily Turk is a