More than 40 people, from as far away as Saluda, S.C., Carrollton, Ga., Champaign, Ill., and Albuquerque, N.M., as well as Blount, Knox, Jefferson and Sevier counties, gathered at the 115-year-old Headrick Chapel on Wears Valley Road in Sevier County for most of the day Sunday.
They had come together to celebrate the glories of the Sacred Harp, the name for the human voice. The tradition of these gatherings is older than the nation itself. These singings occur regularly just for the love of singing. But also with the determination of keeping this amazing tradition alive. And to share a dinner on the grounds, an equally long tradition at country churches.
Jonathon Smith drove from Champaign for the occasion. He drives all over the region to get to as many sacred harp singings as he can. His parents, James and Vira Smith, drove up from Saluda to see him and join in the singing.
Nathan Rees, Smith’s friend, came from Carrollton for the event. “It’s really nice that you can just show up and be welcomed,” Rees said. “You meet a lot of nice people this way.”
Sacred harp singing began in the early 1700s, with the intent of developing a method that would produce a cappella singing in harmony, instead of singing in unison. The hope was to have more beautiful singing with a higher sense of spirituality.
Because most could not understand musical notation, a new system replaced the round or oval note heads with shapes that represented each pitch.
Although originally part of worship services, the tradition of sacred harp singing is no longer considered worship, but the celebration of the glory of God-given voices. Nevertheless, each singing begins with an opening prayer, prayed on Sunday by David Sarten, vice-president of the Sevier County group, Friends of ‘The Harp of Columbia.’
Sacred harp singers are traditionally seated in a square, each of the four parts occupying one side of an open center square where the leader stands. The section that in conventional four-part organization would be for sopranos is called the lead, with both men and women seated there. Altos, made up of entirely women; tenors, composed of both women and men; and the all-men bass section formed the other three sides of the square. The singers take turns leading, the responsibility of which is to choose the song, decide which verses to sing and set the rhythm.
Both women and men leaders typically set the rhythm with one hand holding the New Harp of Columbia song book, the elbow of the other arm is usually held close to stationary, next to the body, and the forearm swinging in an up and down motion, a pattern that on-looking sports fans might think looks like a tomahawk chop that used to be regularly seen at Atlanta Braves games, Florida State football and a number of high school teams.
Various singers in each of the sections set their own rhythm motion, most in the same up and down pattern, but some use the four-point cross pattern singers in choirs at almost every level, amateur and professional, would recognize.
The sacred harp singers in this group and almost all other groups in the Appalachian region use the New Harp of Columbia book, originally printed in 1867. A replica is kept in print through a continuing agreement with the University of Tennessee Press. It is written using seven shape notes. Some areas of the country have four-note traditions.
After the end of each song, the new leader moves to the center. After announcing the song, a pitch pipe sounds the pitch of the first note. The singing begins by first singing the names of the pitches represented by the symbols on the page.
“Mi fa sol fa mi ra ra mi fa mi ra mi” are the notes of the first five measures of “Thou Art Passing Away,” written in the key of G at ¾ time. But if the first note sounded by the pitch pipe seemed too high or too low, the singers would collectively reset the pitch up or down until it suited them.
The entire song is sung through twice, singing only the pitch names. Satisfied that all is well, the leader announces “poetry” and the singing of the words begin: “Thou art pass-ing a-way, thou art pass-ing a-way,” the chorus line that begins and ends the song and is sung between each verse.
The singers at sacred harp singings are not trained voices. The principles of breath control, shaping of vocal sound and voice placement are completely foreign to the process, as are clear enunciation and care to not hiss on terminal S’s or spit out terminal T’s. For the most part, the voices of the singers are out on their lips and the sound level at full voice.
There were moments during the singing on Sunday that sounded like an entire neighborhood going out into their front yards at the same time to call their cats in for the night. But there were also moments when the singing was as sublime as any singing I have ever heard. It had the effect on the soul the way a camp fire warms and comforts the body.