Thursday, June 15, 2017

The 38th Annual National Sacred Harp Convention

The National Sacred Harp Convention meets again in Birmingham this weekend, starting today. (details here). Today I am re-posting one of my past essays from my own experiences at the annual convention.

Sacred Harp and the Sound of Eternal Essence


In Martin Scorsese’s documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Ravi Shankar is heard to say that sound is God. Today I made a connection with that concept as I attended the opening sessions of the National Sacred Harp Convention.  Sacred Harp is an old acapella style of singing that came to this country by way of the English settlers. It was taught to people by using shaped notes to designate  and a "fa-sol-la" method for vocalizing each note. It was kept alive in this country primarily by the Primitive Baptists in Appalachia. Back in 2011, I wrote an essay about my first experience with sacred harp singing. 

When I described that initial encounter, I wrote, “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.”

Not Your Ordinary Words

As I attended the Sacred Harp Convention this year, I was fascinated by the turn of phrase used in many of the lyrics and song titles. For example, Hymn 112 is titled, “The Last Words of Copernicus.” It speaks of the day when this life is over and the light from the heavenly orbs, the sun and moon, will no longer be needed.

In Hymn 450 (Elder) the lyrics include:

Life’s an ever varied flood,
Always rolling to its sea:
Slow or quick, or mild or rude,
Tending to eternity.

Hymn 504 (Woodstreet) is an account of Psalm 137 in which the psalmist mourns the Babylonian captivity saying, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”  Poems and songs have been written about “The waters of Babylon,” but this hymn phrases it:

When we our wearied limbs to rest
Sat down by proud Euphrates’ stream
We wept with doleful thoughts oppressed,
And Zion was our mournful theme.”

I don’t think I have seen references to the Euphrates or to Copernicus in other Christian hymnals.  The lyrics to Hymn 450, in spite of the typically conservative orientation of sacred harp, are beautifully reminiscent of the Buddhist or Hindu concept of all of life returning to its source.

Experiencing the Sound

Yet in spite of the fascinating words in the text of those sacred harp hymns, it is the sound that is the most impressive thing.  The singers are arranged in a square with sopranos, altos, tenors and basses each seated on the sides of the square. The one leading the song stands in the open space in the middle of that square. Sacred harp singers call this space “The holy of holies” because they say it is the absolute best spot to be in to get the full effect of the music.  At this point, I can only imagine what the sound must be like in that holy of holies, because simply sitting in the congregation hearing the music is enough to lift me into a divine presence. The effect of that powerful sound brings me back to the words of Ravi Shankar, that sound is God.

I found a fuller quote from Ravi Shankar that elaborates upon the concept of sound and God:

“Our tradition teaches us that sound is God- Nada Brahma. That is, musical sound and the musical experience are steps to the realisation of the self. We view music as a kind of spiritual discipline that raises one’s inner being to divine peacefulness and bliss. We are taught that one of the fundamental goals a Hindu works towards in his lifetime is a knowledge of the true meaning of the universe - its unchanging, eternal essence….The highest aim of our music is to reveal the essence of the universe it reflects, and the ragas are among the means by which this essence can be apprehended.”
                         [From David Murphy Conducts at http://www.davidmurphyconducts.org/?page_id=7 ]

Of the hymns I heard today, there were many glorious moments. One of those hymns whose lyrics and musical sound converged quite beautifully was Hymn 178 (tune: Africa)

Now shall my inward joys arise,
And burst into a Song;
Almighty Love inspires my Heart,
And Pleasure tunes my Tongue.

God on his thirsty Zion-Hill
Some Mercy-Drops has thrown,
And solemn Oaths have bound his Love
To shower Salvation down.

Why do we then indulge our Fears,
Suspicions and Complaints?
Is he a God, and shall his Grace
Grow weary of his saints?

The words are by the English hymnist Isaac Watts. The tune is by the American choral composer, William Billings. To hear sacred harp singers render this beautiful hymn, go here.

[To hear 504 (Woodstreet) about mourning by the proud Euphrates, go here]

For our sacred harp finale, here is a recording of “The Last Words of Copernicus.” The recording was made my Alan Lomax, the ethnomusicologist who recorded and preserved so much of American folk music.





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