A meetinghouse on a hill. From the summit, standing in front of the steps leading up to the meetinghouse’s door, I can see the lights of windows glinting in the darkness all around. I walk through the door into a high-ceilinged hall with white walls and a polished wooden floor, the ceiling vaulted with elegant crossbeams. My eyes are drawn to an amazing wash of colors flooding from a series of paintings which adorn the three walls to the front, left and right of me. Apart from these paintings the room is spare, but warm, with rows of chairs arranged in a square in the centre, a hollow space within the square.
I am greeted by the meeting’s organizer and confirm that, yes, I am here for the singing. He directs me to where I can pick up copies of the hymnals: two hard-cover books, wider than they are tall, one with a maroon cover and one in black. The maroon book is inscribed with golden letters proclaiming “The Sacred Harp”. This is why I am here – to join in the near two hundred year old tradition of indigenous American song that is Sacred Harp singing. I flip through the book and recognize the unique characteristics of this music: the notes on the stave are drawn as shapes, three repeated shapes plus one single shape making up the notes of the musical scale.
The signal is given to take our places in the square, and I occupy a seat in the second row of the side of the square which sat facing away from the chapel’s door. This is where the tenors (and some sopranos) sit, and we will carry the melody in the songs sung this evening.
We begin singing with a small number of participants and, initially, I’m confident. I am a trained classical singer with many years of experience, I was a choral scholar at the University of Cambridge, I am a proficient sight-reader and veteran of many excellent choirs. I am fairly certain I will be able to read this music with ease and get stuck into it right away.
But as I try to sing the very first song, beginning, as is traditional, with a sing-through using the “fasola” syllables appropriate to each shape, I find that the challenge of matching the sounds to the shapes is far harder than it should be, and my mouth stumbles. As we progress to singing the verses, I realize that the words are all on the “wrong” line, requiring me to look back and forward between my notes and the words to attach to them. I’m out of practice in reading ahead in the music – it’s been years since I sang hymns in church which required this skill! It’s three whole songs before I realize that I’m singing the wrong line entirely, the harmony rather than the melody. I feel like a complete fool.
But it’s impossible not to be swept up in the sound, and I feel myself finding the rhythm of the leader, the syllables slowly slotting into place. It feels great just to SING! I feel myself becoming more competent, and with simple pieces I can fit the “Sol”s, “La”s and “Fa”s into place. The occasional “Mi” still throws me off, but I feel more comfortable as I contribute to the rising sound.
And what a sound – loud, full, slightly edgy, almost harsh, with broad open fifths and meaty thirds, with the occasional 7th adding a harmonic twist. This effect is amplified by the octave doubling in the treble and tenor sections, which creates a remarkably rich, broad noise that seems to expand around you as you sing.
I find myself singing in a completely different voice – my singing teacher would kill me – a more nasal sound, like the folk-songs of northern England I sometimes like to listen to. My foot is thumping on the hard wood floor, and before long I join others in beating time to the music, my hand knifing up and down in the air.
After about an hour, I feel the need to lead the group in song – I want to be in the middle of that square, to hear the sound come at me from all sides, to be within its beating heart and feel the puissant pulse rush round me. But what can I lead? I’ve never sung the Shapes before! My friend reminds me that we did sing at least one song in class, and I remember I still have the music with me, annotated with the fa’s and sol’s! I scrabble for my photocopy of number 45, “New Britain”, more commonly known as “Amazing Grace”.
After reading through the transliterations of the shapes to boost my confidence, I ask the group’s organizer if I might lead a song. He says “sure!”, offering to come into the square with me for “moral support”. I gratefully accept his offer, and wonder when I might muster up the final courage to call out my number – I’m thinking I will leave it a couple more songs at least, or perhaps wait until after the break. But after a mere moment, the leader suggests “Now seems like a good time – there’s a lull” and, before I know it, a voice has called out “Forty-Five!” I’m on my feet before I realize it was my voice, sounding surprisingly assured given how nervous I feel. The organizer gives me a few words of advice (which wash over me in a blur), and I call out the verse numbers – “One, three and five!”. Pitch is established by the tenor leaders, and we’re off.
At first, I try not to look back at all the people watching me, avoiding rows of eyes on all four sides. I concentrate on beating time accurately, which is not as easy as it should be – “New Britain” is written in three-four time, meaning three beats to every bar. In traditional conducting, you would describe a triangle in the air, one side for every beat, starting and ending at the topmost point. But when singing the shapes, you instead beat “Two down and one up”, and again I struggle to unlearn what I know to embrace a new style.
At the same time, I’m trying to match the “fasolas” to the notes, confusing myself with my hand-movements and messing more than a few up. But that’s one of the wonderful things about Sacred Harp singings – no one really minds! And soon I find a groove, the familiar words coming to my rescue, my wretched timekeeping saved by the amazing grace of those gathered together for song, who soldier on despite my lack of surety.
I decide to do as I had seen done by a few of the leaders at this gathering, and turn as I conduct, trying to make eye contact with some of the singers. I feel exhilarated as I catch their eyes, knowing that mine are shining just as brightly with the invigoration of the song, the sound of which is now hitting me from all four sides at once. The experience is intoxicating, enhanced by the prismatic paintings behind the singers, by the ecstatic look on their faces, the feeling of my blood pumping in my ears, breath bursting from my lungs, crazy colors on the wall, vibrations in the gut, tingle in the hands, song in my soul. This is singing. I am enveloped by the song, carried up by it, exalted and exulting.
When I arrive back in my apartment, I realize that I have walked the whole way from the T-stop to my front door without any conscious recollection, my mind filled with the sounds of the shapes and, as I type these words, my fingers continue to buzz with their energy.
Humanism offers nothing like this – yet. I, a committed atheist – a lifelong Humanist, in fact – was moved, transported, by the power of the Sacred Harp singing I attended. It didn’t matter that I don’t believe that there is in fact any “Amazing Grace” that will save a wretch like me. The music worked its magic anyway, as it clearly does for the believers in this trailer for Awake, My Soul, a documentary about Sacred Harp singing. Listen to how they describe their experience: “like no other feeling I have in the world…That’s when I feel my best!”; “I feel like sometimes I’m just gonna be lifted up by the ground that’s shaking under me.” Look at their shining faces, their eyes bright with joy!
Is there space for such experiences in Humanist communities? Do we want it? Could we create, should we desire, a Profane Harp that would transport our infidel selves through the power of music without requiring us to overlook the God bits?
Tune in for part two and find out.