I have heard of Sacred Harp, or “fasola” singing for most of my life. I knew something about the shaped-note tradition of musical training used in days gone by, and I once saw a documentary on Sacred Harp on PBS. I had never experienced sacred harp in person until today. The 32nd annual National Sacred Harp Singing Convention opened in Birmingham today, convening at the First Christian Church. It is a three-day event with all day singing and “dinner on the grounds.”
Growing up in Tallapoosa County, I had been to a few Gospel Singings where Stamps-Baxter and Southern Gospel quartets reigned. But those were nothing to compare to what I heard today. The sound that filled that space was full-throttled and soul-awakening. As the opening session began, a man stood up in front of the crowd and announced the page number for the opening song. A “fa-sol-la” interval was intoned. The entire gathering then burst forth with “fasolas” sounding out the music of the hymn.
I was captivated, stirred on the inside, tears threatening to well up – and no words had been sung yet. It was that bracing harmony of pure notes filling the sunlit space. The sound reminded me of the Bulgarian women’s folk singing that has attracted many listeners since the 1990 recording, Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares. There was a similar directness and exuberance, a hearty primitive and uplifting – even startling – vocal effect. Yet these were regular folks, local people from Alabama and others traveling from points near and far who were producing that fantastic harmony. The visceral effect was also similar to being in the presence of bagpipes as they are played. It grabs your attention and stirs you on the inside.
I saw two friends at the gathering. Tim Cook is a member of the Sacred Harp Convention. He grew up in Michigan and told me that when he and his wife moved to Alabama in 1995, he looked for a singing group because of his life-long interest in singing. He found Sacred Harp and has been involved ever since. I asked Tim why it was that the singers used “fa-sol-la” in their music but not the entire do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do that I associated with the names of the notes. He explained that the older English music used a six-note interval, therefore those notes were represented by fa-so-la which was then repeated for the upper notes as well. The seven-note musical scale was a concept developed later by the Italians who added the other names for the notes.
My other friend, Tommie Willis, said he grew up Primitive Baptist and heard Sacred Harp all his life. “My mother was a leader in Sacred Harp singing,” he told me, “but none of it rubbed off on me.” He was there to listen to that sound that had been familiar in his childhood.
Sacred Harp came to this country by way of the early English settlers. It was first established in New England before the American Revolution, but gradually died out in that part of the country. For years it was kept alive in the hills of Appalachia, particularly among the Primitive Baptists. Nowadays it continues to be preserved by Sacred Harp gatherings and conventions.
To read an account of the National Sacred Harp Singing Convention in The Birmingham News, go to http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2011/06/national_sacred_harp_singing_c.html . If you view their photo gallery, you'll see a picture of my friend Tim Cook leading a hymn. Below you will find a video of some Sacred Harp singers. It will give you a flavor of the music, but there is nothing like experiencing it live and in person.