A joyful noise on a simple scale Sacred Harp music: Handed down for generations, a four-note frontier choral tradition echoes in a multitude of modern voices.

Sun Journal


McMAHAN, Texas -- The hellos have been said. The hands have been shaken. Now the chairman, B. E. Matthews, steps to the center of the square and announces the opening song.

Someone among the tenors sings the pitch, for there are no instruments here. Then the people sing through the whole song in the syllables of the musical scale, "Fa, la, sol, fa, mi, la, sol " to ensure that everyone knows the tune. Then, without a pause, they repeat, this time launching robustly into the words:

Come, we that love the Lord,

And let our joys be known;

Join in a song with sweet accord,

And thus surround the throne.

Mr. Matthews has chosen the hymn at the bottom of Page 31 in "The Sacred Harp," the long blue songbook that he and all the people hold.

As he sings, he pumps his right arm up and down in long, even strokes, setting a stately pace for the music.

About 100 people, some young, some old, some rural, some urban, some religious, some not, have gathered at Bethel Primitive Baptist Church in the tiny community of McMahan on this sunny Saturday for the annual Southwest Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention, a tradition their ancestors began long ago.

They'll sing at the top of their voices -- there's no pianissimo in Sacred Harp music -- for four hours a day for two days, making a joyful noise unto the Lord, with only two five-minute recesses and an hourlong break for dinner on the grounds each day.

"Some people run marathons," says Gaylon Powell, one of their number. "They work themselves up to running 26 miles. Likewise with our voices. We work until we can sing four hours today and four hours tomorrow. We could go longer than that. In Alabama, singings sometimes last three or four days."

'We're not a choir'

The singers have arranged themselves in a hollow square as they always do, the tenors in front of Mr. Matthews, the altos behind him, the basses to his right, the trebles to his left, all facing him.

"We're not a choir," Mr. Powell says. "It's not a listeners' music, it's a singers' music. We're singing to each other, not to an audience. And we can hear each other better in the square."

One after another, other leaders follow Mr. Matthews, moving to the center of the square, announcing the page numbers of the songs they want to sing. Leaders of all ages, from bashful children to revered seniors, take their turns. All are treated equally with attention and respect.

Individually, few voices here are better than ordinary. But by what the musical folklorist Alan Lomax has called a "combination of musical skill and individualism," the singers invest their music with a rare passion and vigor. They sing their words with a conviction and joy that raise their sound to an almost angelic purity. Every verse is a hallelujah. In the rear of the sanctuary, where the nonsinging listeners sit, tears are welling in many eyes.

This is a kind of singing taught many years ago by itinerant masters who rode from village to village, teaching classes at churches and schools and courthouses.

The music is simple, with a scale of only four notes -- fa, sol, la and mi -- missing the do, re and ti of more conventional music. And the notes that the singing masters taught have different shapes -- a triangle for fa, a circle for sol, a square for la, a diamond for mi -- a scheme devised in early America to teach singing to people who couldn't read music.

Unlike the choral music most listeners are accustomed to, the melody in Sacred Harp isn't carried by the highest voices. It's sung by the tenors. The treble, or soprano, section -- which includes both female and male voices -- sings a harmony higher than the melody. Joined by the lower altos and basses, the singers create an ethereal but wild-sounding harmony seldom heard in modern times.

"Shaped-note music began in New England just after the Revolutionary War," says Charles Whitmer, a public school band director and a devoted Sacred Harp singer. "The songs were indigenous American music, and they wound up in various songbooks that the traveling singing masters used. Their composers didn't follow the rules of the composers in Europe.

"But later, the Northeastern cities started importing the European style of hymnody and saw the American style as inferior and odd-sounding."

Eventually, shaped-note music was pushed out of even the rural areas of the increasingly "sophisticated" Northeast, but it traveled southward and westward with the frontier.

In 1844, Maj. Benjamin Franklin Cooper of Alabama had published a shaped-note songbook called "The Sacred Harp," containing more than 500 songs that frontier people who had no musical instruments could sing in their worship services or for pleasure.

The words of the songs in Major Cooper's book are religious. Some are set to ancient drinking and dancing tunes from the British Isles. Others were written in New England not long after the Revolution.

Some crossed through the Cumberland Gap with Daniel Boone. Some were written on the Southern frontier or in old Texas.

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