On Sacred Harp Singing and the Call to Follow Jesus

In mid-June 2002, I first met this guy:


That’s Tim Eriksen. I had never heard of him before that, but my museum was in the middle of putting on its first annual Folk Festival, and Tim was there for that event. I remember the first time I saw him, he was dressed like this, more or less, sans fiddle. Just a tall, dark, intimidating guy dressed entirely in black with multiple bits of jewelry hanging from various appendages. I thought, “Who the hell IS this guy?!” It seemed he might have been a bit sinister. A few hours later, I heard him sing, and I thought, “Who the hell IS this guy!?” It seemed he might have been an angel.

Well, Tim played a little fiddle and a little banjo at that folk festival. He sang a few tunes – some traditional, some original, and I was hooked. “What a cool guy!”

sacred_harp   He came back the following summer, and that’s when I first heard about the Sacred Harp.Tim was leading a workshop, teaching us museumy folk about the origins of the Sacred Harp hymnal, and the solfage used therein. (You’ll have to check out this or this website for technical details.) He explained about the lining-out style of singing popular in the New England colonies, to which shaped note notation was a direct backlash.

We learned that the squares were called La.fasola
The circles were called Sol.
The Flags were called Fa.
And the diamonds were called Mi.
(No purple horsehoes or red baloons, Lucky Charms, fans. Sorry.)

Anyway, Tim taught us about how this kind of music was used to teach music to people who didn’t know how to read music – how a whole singing school tradition had developed from this type of hymnal. Remember Ichabod Crane? Yeah, he was a singing school teacher.

So, we did some practicing of these tunes, singing “on the notes.” That means, instead of singing the words, the singers sing the names of the notes. “Fa fa mi la sol fa sol la, la la la sol fa fa la sol…” Etc. After you sing that through once, you move to the words.

I didn’t need the words. Just the sound of people singing in harmony had me hooked.

This isn’t like a regular choir, where people are arranged by voice in rows in order to sing to an audience: we are arranged by voice into sections that face one another over a “hollow square.”
Basses (who sing the bottom line) are seated across from the
Trebles (who sing the top line);
Tenors (who sing the second line from the bottom) sit facing the
Counter-tenors (who sing the second line from the top).

Tenors carry the main melody, although the tunes are mostly written so that each line is a melody in and of itself.

And in the center, there’s that hollow square, where a leader will stand, set the pitch, and keep the time as we sing.

Again, there’s no audience. We sing to one another and for one another. In time, I came to see that we also sing to and for God, but that took me a while to get there.

The harmonies had me hooked, as I say. Each part sang their starting pitch, and the chord that emerged knocked me on.the.floor. It’s like no other sound that you’ve heard – or unlike any I had heard up until that day.

And then came the words. I was still many years separated from the church in June of 2003, and singing songs about Jesus was definitely NOT on the top of my list of Fun Stuff to Do. But somehow… somehow singing with Tim, singing in a way that felt like walking ancient paths … that made it “safe” for me. After a few months (and a wedding in which I felt the hand of God moving), I began to sing boldly.

Shape note music, especially the Sacred Harp and the Missiouri Harmony, were critical stages for welcoming me back to the Church, back to a faith I had long neglected and hadn’t really been interested in rekindling.

Why should YOU come to the Sacred Harp sing on Sept. 26? Will YOU also feel a spark like that? I don’t know. There are no guarantees that my experience will be yours. But if nothing else, come for the singing. Come for the SOUND. Come for the harmony. Come.

1 Comment

  1. Julie says:

    Thanks for sharing this. It seems like I have come to the party a little late, but I’m glad that I have arrived. I’m also glad that when I was attending the National Folk Alliance conference that I heard a voice as I was coming down the elevator. A voice that shot chills down to my core. I followed the voice and missed a conference session to stand in the hallway and participate in the impromptu shape note sing going on. It reminded me of my grandmothers church in the Appalachian mountains, and how connected to God I always thought she was. I felt like a part of her was telling me to talk to this man and invite him to come sing at the festival. I just walked up to him right there and booked it. Clearly, one of the best decisions that I have ever made. Today I needed to hear that my tiny actions matter in the world, and for one brief minute, if a decision that I made put in motion a circle that helped to bring you to your calling, I can feel good about being part of that plan. As serendipitous as it all seems, I felt then as I do now that I was guided toward selecting him. It seems that the plan was much bigger than I thought. 😉 Thanks again for sharing.


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