The Old Paths: “Help Me to Sing”
It was probably two years ago that I attended my first Sacred Harp singing. The closest one I could find was in Columbus, Ohio, a two-hour drive. The winter sun was beginning to set as I pulled into the empty parking lot of the borrowed Episcopalian church (which has no denominational connections to the group, or to the style itself). Soon, somebody else arrived. It was Eric, the group’s leader. He let me in and I flipped through the pages of the Sacred Harp songbook as he set up chairs in a square formation.
The Sacred Harp has been around for roughly 150 years. It’s origins are scattered across many southern states, but you can somewhat trace the tradition back to B.F. White and Elisha J. King in Georgia, who first organized the Sacred Harp songbook in 1844. The two compiled melodies and lyrics that drew upon the southern style of shape note singing. Within the style, notation is condensed to four notes, with a symbol representing each one (triangle for fa, oval for sol, square for la, and diamond for mi). As each hymn begins, the choir “lines out” the song by singing the notes aloud, establishing the melody. It’s an eerie sound, unlike anything else that I know of in sacred music (or in music in general).
White, King, and the wealth of singers and writers who contributed to the sacred harp tradition weren’t creating this new form of music from nothing. They were absorbing years of sacred writings and hymns; songs that had travelled down mountains and over oceans; and they were transforming them into something much different. The Sacred Harp songbook is a vast trove of ancient lyrics put to ghostly melodies. Some of the words may have been contemporary to the first printings of the songbook, but many preceded the tradition by generations.
Sitting in the recreation room of the church, I turned to one such adaptation. It was a tune called “Idumea”, number 47b in the book. Charles Wesley’s hymn, written in 1763, has seen many alterations over the centuries, none more notable than it’s sacred harp translation. My favorite is probably Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton’s version, recorded in 1964. It wasn’t a sacred harp performance, but it was very much inspired by the tradition. As Carlton’s fiddle moans, Watson’s voice, full of Appalachian dread, utters the terrifyingly honest words:
Soon as from earth I go,
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe
Must then my portion be!
Just as sacred harp has taken old songs, rearranged their melodies, and created something much different; artists since have been drawing on the songbook for inspiration, taking the words, taking pieces of the melodies, and adapting them into other music styles. Watson and Carlton’s version of “Idumea” is an early example of this, and it seems to set a precedent for an album of sacred harp cover songs released in 2008 called Help Me to Sing. Their reinterpretation of “Idumea” sits alongside reinterpretations by a number of modern-day independent and mainstream musicians.
Help Me to Sing was organized by Matt Hinton as a companion piece to the sacred harp documentary, Awake My Soul, which he and his wife, Erica, directed. Hinton discovered the tradition when he was about 16. Escorted to a singing, he remembers approaching the church: “You could hear the power of the thing before you entered the building…Twenty or thirty people sounded like a couple hundred people”. He was immediately fascinated.
Erica’s grandmother was a sacred harpist as well, and when the two young college students needed a topic for a 10-minute film they were assigned to create at Georgia State, they were both in agreement on what it should be. They filmed different gatherings and interviewed aging singers who were carrying on the tradition. After they had finished the short film, Matt says, “We never stopped bringing the camera with us”, and in 2006, the full-length documentary was released.
Matt’s interest in music has always been diverse. Sacred harp is not for the casual listener. It is not instantly pleasant or easy on the ears. It challenges. It demands participation to be fully understood. So I think it’s telling that at the same time that he was travelling to different singings, studying and documenting this uncommon singing style, Matt was also embracing other unconventional artists and styles as well.
In the late 90’s, when Daniel Smith’s Danielson Familie began making waves in the indie music world, Matt would give them a place to stay on tours down the East coast. Through sacred harp, he met Tim Eriksen, the punk rocker/musicologist (a rare breed), who has studied and performed various forms of American folk music over the years, sometimes traditionally, and sometimes not so much (listen to the cover of “Idumea” by his band, Cordelia’s Dad, for instance).
Matt was drawn to the unordinary, and through incidents of happenstance, he was building musical relationships that would eventually join him in his sacred harp experiments. When he and Erica were searching for ways to expose new listeners to sacred harp, easing them into a tradition that can be jarring at first, Matt began to call upon his old friends, who would filter the lyrics, melodies and harmonies through the lens of their respective musical styles.
Each artist brings his or her unique sensibility to the project. The Innocence Mission condenses the hymn, “Africa”, down to a gentle folk song. Jim Lauderdale fits “the Christian’s Hope” with eerie Appalachian harmonies. And Danielson, screeching vocals and odd melody shifts in tact, still sounds like Danielson on “Sermon on the Mount”. But there is a beautiful movement to the album, as if each track were a step towards that promised land of Canaan that sacred harpists so often sing about. Much of it comes from the words, which are drenched in the archaic poetry and mournful laments of the tradition. But even beyond the words, there is a fire that lies behind them. Many of the songs erupt into bursts of choral and instrumental lamentations, unconventionally capturing the emotion of the old harpists shouting out their joys and sorrow.
The album is strange, bleak, uplifting and mysterious…just like sacred harp; a tradition that, according to Eriksen, involves “an ongoing, sometimes tacit, sometimes heated but in any case dynamic, discussion about what it is and what it isn’t”.
Eriksen, who sings two songs on the record, has studied its history, teaches and sings it often, but struggles to find words that describe it appropriately. Matt and Erica filmed a movie about the tradition, but would most likely admit that it cannot be captured through any medium outside of performance. It has led all of them to many Southern singings and far beyond, as it led me through many secondhand recordings, books, and finally to that church in Columbus, where I had no choice but to experience it firsthand.
After I had flipped through the pages for a while, admiring the noted poetry as if it were an ancient art (which it almost is), the singers began to arrive and take their places at the square. Quiet voices nimbly immersed in small talk soon gave way to an epic sound that shook the room. I sat among the basses and was timid at first, whispering the words, while the singers shouted and sang around me. I had only listened to the style beforehand. I had never tried to sing it, nor did I understand how to read and interpret the four shape notes. But as the night wore on, and the music took hold, I began to see past my insecurities. Matt was right. There were only about ten of us in that square, but it sounded like an ocean of voices. I lifted my own voice, decibel by decibel, until I was almost shouting with everyone else, the words crashing like waves while our voices ebbed and flowed together. That is the mystery of sacred harp. I was drawn in, my soul awakened. That’s what it does to you.
This post previously appeared on www.letusmakearecord.com
Help Me to Sing is part of a 2 disc set that also includes the soundtrack to Matt and Erica’s film. It can be found at most online retailers.
Eriksen, Tim. Email interview. November and December, 2011.
Hinton, Matt. Phone interview. Sometime in 2011.
Steel, David Warren, and Richard H. Hulan. The Makers of the Sacred Harp. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield, University of Illinois Press, 2010. Print