Posted by: rbbadger | August 8, 2009

The Sacred Harp

Some of America’s oldest musical traditions, namely the rural hymnody with its rugged harmonies, is still preserved in a number of places, most notably in the deep south of the United States.  In some places, the traditions of shape-note singing have been lovingly maintained.  Shape-note singing takes its name from the fact that the notes take on different shapes to represent the intervals of the musical scale.  It is still sung a cappella in four-part harmony.  There are still groups which gather for periodic “sings” where they will sing for long periods from The Sacred Harp, a large hymnal made up entirely of shape-note hymns.  The harmony is primitive.  There are lots of perfect fourths and fifths.  Nevertheless, it is an important part of our musical heritage, as it links with the earlier New England traditions, most notably with the work of William Billings and other New England hymn writers of the 18th century. 

A documentary was made about The Sacred Harp and the tradition of southern shape-note singing.  The trailer of “Awake My Soul”: The Story of The Sacred Harp is well worth a look.

To see another video of some shape-note singing, look at the second clip.  It features a group of singers from different parts of the country gathered together for a sing.  It is remarkable that these sorts of things still happen, namely gatherings of people singing some of America’s oldest music just for the sheer joy of it.



  1. I love this post! That’s one thing we didn’t do while you were home is gather round the piano while you accompany us in the hymns. Next time that will be top of the list!

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