Sacred Harp: Old time music, BIG time sound

If you’re looking for something out-of-the-ordinary to do this weekend, can we interest you in some raucous and rowdy… worship music? Wait, wait, stay with us. Read on to find out more (includes sound clips and video).

Once a year, people travel to Richmond from far and wide to raucously celebrate the shape note and Sacred Harp singing tradition. This year it’s happening on November 7th at St. John’s Episcopal Church (that’s the “Give me liberty, or give me death” church, if you’re not familiar).

Shape note singing: A brief history

I realize that most of you folks have no idea what shape note or Sacred Harp singing is. (Or it could be that you don’t realize you’re familiar with it, as it was prominently featured in Cold Mountain.) I will share only what was recently narrated to me by a more experienced singer. Feel free to nerd out somewhere else online if you must.

Sacred Harp singing is a form of the broader “shape note” singing tradition. The name refers to the musical notation style, whereby notes are not round, but come in several shapes (typically four or seven). The shapes are based on where the note fits relative to the scale. The word “Harp” was frequently used in the 19th century as a term for hymnal. “The Sacred Harp,” first published in 1844, is a four-shape system, bellowed in four parts: treble (soprano) alto, tenor (lead) and bass. See, look down there at the diagram*:


The melodies trace back to circa Middle Ages when “West Gallery Music” was performed for British nobility, who would face the west balcony to hear the singers above. Along with Celtic folk tunes, these melodies made their way to our New England colonies and to the western regions of Virginia and North Carolina in the early 17th century. During the 17th and 18th centuries, singing schools started cropping up in New England. The reputable teachers traveled around to teach, making it as far south as Alabama and Georgia. Shape note singing took root through the emergence of these singing schools, and the first shape note hymnal, “The Easy Instructor” was published in 1818, using the four-shape notation.

Shape note singing enjoyed a decent following until around 1822, when Lowell Mason and friends essentially wiped out the singing schools in the North. Mason vehemently pushed his more highbrow European style hymns and round notes in favor of shape notes, which he viewed as less spiritually developed, due mostly to their informal nature and occasional tendency to produce “across-the-square” romances (participants sit in a square formation during sings, but more on that later). At this point singings were basically church for many, but (problematically to Mason) they were not high church.

BUT, despite the North’s attacks by Mason, the South continued with their singing conventions. The tradition lived in rural places where there was not a critical mass to build a church, most notably in central Georgia and northern Florida. Not until the mid-1980’s would shape note singing reappear in the North. Even so, it’s still not exactly popular anywhere.

Bio of a new singer

The first singing I ever went to was last year’s “annual, all-day singing convention,” held in a meeting house in Varina. The sound blew my mind. When good spirituals come along, they can be a wrecking ball. Then came that almost guilty feeling that sometimes happens during a show, where you know that you can’t do justice to what’s happening in your soul – there’s just not enough appreciation in your robot heart to give back as much as much as you know you should.

2001 Brasstown, NC Christian Harmony Singing

But after that first singing, I wasn’t sure whether to keep coming. These singers I had met were so obsessive about it. Alas and alas again, when the buzz wore off, I thought, “Uh, I found this folk tradition that not a lot of people know about. Now I know what it’s like – I don’t want to do it every month though. I will just tell people how sweet and obscure I am, but I probably won’t ever go again.”

Not true. I was in Philadelphia with family one weekend, and a sing was going on. My mom had an old shape note hymnal at home, so she was curious. The difficulty was a big Yankee notch up from my prior experience because there were younger, “northern” singers from Massachusetts. Apparently their Puritan courting rituals are contingent upon whoever can lead the fastest, most impossible song.

Predictably, there was the cute girl across the square. I went to a few more singings. It didn’t work out with the girl. No it’s cool, it happens all the time.

The defining moment for me came during an all-day singing in Shenandoah Valley. I picked the tune I was going to lead and led it in the morning, wanting to get it out of the way so I wasn’t nervously practicing singing the shapes all day. I bombed it. Hard. But the feedback as I left the center of the square was “Good lead, good lead.”

The rest of the day was out of sight. By afternoon the group of 100 or so had warmed up. My left eardrum basically stopped working on account of the gospel power in the parish hall. I slept that night in a tent on a farm after a bonfire with some older singers and some Baltimore crust-folk kids, and woke up to hear my host singing a Sacred Harp tune as he passed my tent to go let the chickens out.

Since then I’ve been singing with the Richmond Sacred Harp Singers in town when I can. The monthly singings here in RVA are about 12 people strong. It’s more of a familiar, super low-key get-together with old-fashioned people, but we bang out some fire and brimstone all the same. The songs still speak for themselves. Listen…

New Jerusalem sung by The Northern Shenandoah Valley Sacred Harp and Shape Note Singers

Raw, rowdy, and reverent

It’s impossible to understand what goes on at a singing just by going to one or two. These events are intense to hear, even more intense to sing at, and remarkable to lead, standing in the center of the square with the masses singing directly at you.

Sacred Harp singing is not meant to be pretty. Songs contain no expressive dynamics or instructions – they’re just kind of raucous. It should also be noted that Sacred Harp singing is not a performance. Though guests and curious people frequently drop in, the purpose is to sing to each other and, for some people, to their sweet savior. Shape note song style is distinct. Melodies carry a traditional Appalachian sound, and harmonies are structured so as to create a very open type of sound, as opposed to the tightly-knit pop-bluegrass sound that we are used to.

Richmond Sacred Harp Singers monthly singing, 2009

Typically, the first thing that happens as folks arrive is chatting and name-dropping. I can’t stand name-dropping, but these folks deserve to do it, seeing as how descendants of early songwriters and hymn book compilers may have been recently sighted, or an old singer’s gravestone found that no one knew existed. They like to travel up and down the Appalachians and check in with old singing friends at yearly singings.

Prior to the singing, whoever wants to “lead” a song or two writes their name and song selection down. A newer singer better call an easy song or they’re in deep, and an experienced singer better call an impressive song, lest they be judged.

Everyone trickles into their sections, taking their time to consider what part they want to start off singing. The chairs, numbering anywhere from 20 to 120 depending on where the convention is, are set up in a square, with each of the four parts making up a side. The front seats in each section, particularly in the lead/tenor section (which carries the melody of the tune) are reserved for the more experienced singers.

Traditional hollow-squared seating arrangement for Sacred Harp singing

After a few announcements, a well-respected singer leads the first tune. Leading is done in different styles, depending on which teacher has taught the leader. (I have no leading style. I just look lost.) The idea is to face the lead section and swing your arm like an axe. It sounds and looks easy, but it’s tough as mess. Facing the tenor section, the leader’s job is to get everyone started, keep and change tempo, cue a vocal part to enter, and cut everyone off.

The first time through each tune, the group “sings the shapes” in order to help learn the melody (fa-fa-sol, etc.). The leader then looks at the pitcher to make sure the song is pitched well, and the song is sung. When the last verse is finished, the leader holds his or her hand up to cut off the group.

Meanwhile, one “pitcher” is assigned to choose the key of every song and will “pitch” for a good part of the convention. Interestingly, shape note songs are not sung in the key they are written. Each song key is pitched out of experience, often based on the ranges of the people present, whether people are warmed up, how a song has been tried recently in other areas, or maybe how the pitcher just likes the song sung. A good pitcher takes a few seconds to get started, and the songs just flow from one to the next.


As far as the singers go, my favorites are not technical. One older singer I’ve been around tends to throw his voice around, add some trill he he’s been singing for years, singing a different melody that he probably knows from hymnals past, and kind of closes his eyes and leans his head, never looking at the music. Many singers know most songs by heart, but they’re not necessarily polished singers. In fact, they’re likely not musicians, just singers. When a tune is called with a fast run, they may not hit it. Singers from the South are generally older and they are generally at a singing to sing the songs they know and love.

Because the northern resurgence of shape note singing is relatively recent, northern singers are young. Younger experienced singers are in it more for the thrill. They are technically sound, often restless and competitive, and like to show off with harder tunes. But they just don’t have that old man yelp or growl.

Let’s fast forward to the last tune of the day. Most of the singers are super tired, and the group has typically peaked in intensity earlier in the afternoon. It’s time to stand for the last tune, which is most likely #347, “Christian’s Farewell.” It’s an easy one, so everyone is able to look up from their books and give some parting glances.

Keystone Convention, 2009 annual singing – #131 Messiah

If you’re interested in learning more about the Richmond Sacred Harp Singers and the shape note singing tradition, stop by the James River Sacred Harp Convention on Saturday, November 7th from 10am to 3:30pm at St. John’s Church. You can also become a fan on Facebook or stop by their website.

*The Sacred Harp, 1991 Ed.

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Nate Mathews

Nate Mathews can be seen around town with his bass, guitar, accordion, or his big heart. He would like to have you over for tea on his front porch in Church Hill to talk about philosophical humdrum and things he’s been overthinking lately.

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