Two weeks ago I was listening to music that sounded something like this picture.
I was in the Glover Town Hall with maybe 150 other people at a benefit for a woman whose house burned to the ground not long after the New Year. Glover isn’t quite like other Vermont towns because Bread and Puppet, a politically left puppet theater, has been in residence here since the 1960s. In the beginning and for some years, the theater and much of the community were at odds, but today Bread and Puppet is pretty much just another neighbor. Because the victim of the fire had been active in the theater troupe, the show that night was especially rife with talent, but as much or more came from the town: a very old fiddler, a very young fiddler and her guitar-playing little brother, some very funny skits, the singing proprietor of the general store…..
It was one of those nights. Kids ran up and down the aisles; people hugged; they shared homemade doughnuts, cookies and stories. But the most remarkable event for me was the singing of the Sacred Harp.
Twenty years ago, when I first came to this part of the world, I heard my first Sacred Harp music. Not many years later I noticed that a few young people had joined Vermont singing groups and the music had begun to spread. But only begun. A few more years and a dozen or more people had joined Elka Schumann at Bread and Puppet and were singing together every month. But now, suddenly, on a snowy night in Town Hall, half of Glover seemed to be in the front of the room, singing full out, mouths wide open, Elka Schumann, the mother of Bread and Puppet, beating out the rhythm. It was a powerful, throbbing, raw sound. It was amazing.
America’s Sacred Harp music began in the churches of New England more than two centuries ago. Four-part, it is a cappella. Not even a pitch pipe is used. The only instrument is the “Sacred Harp”—the human voice. The singers read a music that consists in “shape notes.” The circles, triangles, rectangles and diamonds correspond with the notes of the scale. They provide visual cues to help everyone sing the intervals between notes.
The music began in England, and the first shape note music in this country was written and taught by teachers of singing schools. They had marvelous names like Supply Belcher (Maine), Ebeneezer Child (Vermont), Timothy Swan (Massachusetts), Justin Morgan (Vermont)….. They were also shopkeepers, school teachers, local government functionaries, farmers—Justin Morgan, for example, is better known as the man who bred the Morgan horse. Not surprisingly, most of the music has a religious bent and was sung in churches.
Sacred Harp music disappeared in New England as another smoother, more formal and mostly more sentimental music replaced it. But it soon took root in the rural South, and by 1900, it thrived there. By the 1920s and ’30s, folklorists began to notice it, and in the 1960s, New Englanders, and especially Vermonters, rediscovered it. Today, it has become popular across the country and singing conventions take place from Seattle to Boston to South Carolina.
In the Glover Town Hall, the music was driving, vital, very physical, very emotional. It filled the room and pushed the walls out into the night and lifted the ceiling up to the night sky.
In the March/April 2011 issue of Vermont Magazine, there are some wonderful comments from singers and listeners of Sacred Harp. Here are a few.
“When I first heard [Sacred Harp], it was like someone hitting me over the head with a frying pan. The four-part harmony just does something in your head.” After he (Paul Gauthier) traveled to a National Convention in Alabama: “It was a real revelation to sing with the old barrel-chested guys who have been singing all their life. It was like being in a pipe organ.”
“It’s very emotive, even cathartic—particularly with a number of people, their voices washing through me while I am singing. It’s a fantastic feeling.” (Ian Smiley)
“Singing loud and high—it’s a moving experience… it’s about life, eternity, the big questions–joy and grief.” (Chelsea Rose Sargent)
You can hear Sacred Harp singing on YouTube. Most of the performances are poorly recorded, but you’ll begin to understand it. And next thing you’ll be singing it.