Sacred Harp Singing

If I was forced to give an example of at least one good thing we got out of the Puritans, I would quickly point to Sacred Harp singing.  Sacred Harp is a traditional, primitive method of church singing still favored in the Deep South, and it even comes complete with several different annual conventions.  Brion McClanahan and others have written here before about Sacred Harp singing, but I’ve always been interested in its journey from the Land of the Witch Trials to the Land of Cotton, and why it still persists so strongly.

When I was a kid, I used to get the Pilgrims and the Puritans mixed up all the time.  They were both groups of religious separatists who landed in Massachusetts in the early 1600’s and the men wore funny black hats with buckles.  However, one of the ways they differed dramatically and significantly from each other was their music.

Both Pilgrims and Puritans brought over an intact, nomadic version of their own worship services, and that included their worship music.  Today, modern Protestant services use hymnals containing ancient melodies mixed with newer composed religious songs, typically arranged around the liturgical year.  However, in the 17th century, Protestant services were still fairly new, and they used a song book known as a psalter, which contained psalm tunes from The Book of Psalms.  In The Old Testament, there are 150 psalms in The Book of Psalms, and over half of them are considered to have been composed by King David.  Different faiths used different published psalters, depending on the needs of their worship services, and the Pilgrims brought with them the Ainsworth Psalter, which contained only 39 psalm tunes.  From that information alone, it would be correct to infer that music was just not much of a big deal to the Pilgrims.

For the Puritans, however, music was a very big deal.  The psalter they brought with them when they landed in Salem in 1630 was the latest version of the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter, which contained 87 psalm tunes, more than double the number of psalm tunes found in the psalter of the Pilgrims.  And yet, even that wasn’t enough.  Expressing concern that the musical tradition of their worship services might be suffering in the New World, the Puritans convened a committee to create a new and bigger psalm book.  The masterpiece they created was called The Bay Psalm Book, published in 1640 by the Cambridge Press, and it represents the very first book published in the New World.  The first edition contained 123 psalm tunes, translated directly from the Hebrew, and marked a significant moment in American music history.  In 2013, a copy of the original Bay Psalm Book sold at auction for over $14 million.

Unfortunately, the Bay Psalm Book contained no music – only lyrics – and the Puritans continued to see a decline in the quality of their church singing.  Young people were getting the tunes incorrectly, and very few people knew how to actually read music.  Puritans watched this continued decline for almost a century, until necessity demanded action.  Since you can’t glorify God in song if you sound terrible, “Singing Schools” were created, which represented kind of a traveling music theory.  In a system similar to today’s revivals, a music teacher would travel from one community to the next, pitch a tent, and spend a couple of weeks teaching people how to read music and sing in church.  The purpose of these Singing Schools was singular – improvement of church singing.  However, the unexpected cultural benefits were invaluable and lasting.

For one thing, the music teachers typically authored their own music instruction books to be used in the Singing Schools, and they used bits and pieces of songs that would already be known to their prospective students.  This is actually a remarkable pedagogical technique known as “familiar to unfamiliar,” whereby a teacher bases new knowledge on a student’s pre-existing old knowledge.  In other words, the new musical method they learned was taught from songs they already knew.  And the deeper importance of this was that the music books created for the Singing Schools started to capture and represent a unique and new “American” sound.

Secondly, the Singing Schools used a newly invented way of reading and writing music known as “shape notes,” in which musical pitches were represented by the shape of the notes rather than their position on a standard line-and-space music staff.  The original system was a four-note scale, based on the syllables fa-so-la-mi, and it worked remarkably well.  In a typical worship service, the singers were divided up by male and female, and arranged in four groups sitting in a square shape facing each other.  The entire hymn would be performed once with the fa-so-la-mi syllables, and then repeated with the correct lyrics added.  All Puritan worship-related singing was performed a capella, as musical instruments were forbidden in the service.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Singing School principles of travelling music theory worked their way across all of the colonies and states, including the Deep South.  As the concepts of advanced established public education networked across New England and made Singing Schools obsolete, the South became fertile ground for music teachers looking to make a buck, and the Singing Schools enjoyed a mini-Renaissance.  Southerners of the 19th century may not have had access to public school, but they had plenty of access to churches and Singing Schools, and the shape note system worked its magic.  When the Singing School came to town, sometimes the entire community would participate.  In addition, the music teachers continued to use the concept of “familiar to unfamiliar” in their lessons, and they kept collecting music samples that the students would already know.  Not just an “American” sound was captured, but a “Southern” sound as well.  As the music teachers travelled from one region to the next throughout the South, they adapted their material, and allowed a “blended” Southern sound to begin percolating.

A book known as the Sacred Harp songbook was published in 1844 using the shape note system from the Singing Schools for all the tunes, and a new Southern tradition was born.  Southern Protestant churches created adapted versions of worship services for their own particular denominations, but the singing stayed consistent and followed the music found in the Sacred Harp songbook.  As America modernized in the 20th century, the old Sacred Harp traditions remained strong in Georgia, Alabama, and Texas, and they continued to flourish in the many primitive churches found throughout the Deep South.  In an incredible ironic twist, Sacred Harp singing is gathering a lot of steam and popularity back up in Yankee-land, and Southern shape note singers are in high demand up there.  It’s even collecting quite a bit of an international following, and Sacred Harp conventions appear frequently in places like Ireland and Wales.

My 4th great uncle, John Adams Daniel, was a singing school teacher.  He started out working from the Sweetwater Primitive Baptist Church in Crenshaw County, Alabama after returning home from the surrender at Appomattox.  After covering all of the south Alabama counties in Sacred Harp songs and shape notes for several years, he moved his family to Gonzalez, Florida (north of Pensacola), and spread the joy of singing for ten years throughout the Gulf Coast.  He ultimately ended up in Dublin, Texas where he continued his love for the Sacred Harp until his death in 1913.  I talked to his granddaughter once, and she told me that the most distinctive memory she had of John Adams Daniel was watching him take a fountain pen out of his pocket and bounce it rhythmically as he led the congregation in singing.  That fountain pen was always his impromptu conductor’s baton.

The sound of a Sacred Harp performance is unmistakable – the tone is bright and crisp, and the volume can be deafening.  Don’t forget that the same blood responsible for the Rebel Yell all those years ago is still flowing through the veins of Southern Sacred Harp singers today.  Once, a choir director asked me why the Sacred Harp singers used such a “redneck and hick twang” when they performed, and I replied, “Because they’re doing it right.”

About Tom Daniel

Tom Daniel holds a Ph.D in Music Education from Auburn University. He is a husband, father of four cats and a dog, and a college band director who lives back in the woods of Alabama with a cotton field right outside his bedroom window. His grandfather once told him he was "Scotch-Irish," and Tom has been trying to live up to those lofty Southern standards ever since. More from Tom Daniel

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