I first discovered shape note music after watching the movie Lawless (love Tom Hardy). The scene with Shia having his feet washed….the music gave me chills. I googled it. Sacred Harp Singing. It’s an early form of rural church music.
It’s haunting. And incredibly raw sound. I can’t explain it. It makes me choke up. They say that the Sacred Harp refers the tugging of heart strings. I understand that now. It’s the same feeling I get when walking through a cemetery. You can hear deep sorrow and suffering and joy all mixed together in this great wave of sound. Amazing. Seriously no words.
One of my favorite songs is from the movie Cold Mountain, Idumea. It was written around 1707. You can hear the singers sing the notes the first time around and then they move into the words: (direct link here)
And am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?
A land of deepest shade,
Unpierced by human thought
The dreary regions of the dead,
Where all things are forgot.
Soon as from earth I go
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe,
Must then my portion be!
Waked by the trumpet sound,
I from my grave shall rise;
And see the Judge with glory crowned,
And see the flaming skies!
I would love visit a church or group who sings like this. Definitely when I’m back east next summer, I tried but didn’t have enough time to track one down. Instead I rented the documentary Awake my Soul. It’s definitely worth adding to your Netflix queue:
Hallelujah, sung by the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, was recorded for the Library of Congress in 1959: (direct link here)
Hope you like it. Read more about the history at Fasola.org.
My husband and I LOVE shape note singing! Check out Tim Eriksen — he’s much in the same vein — and he has a really haunting quality to his voice. I think he was actually a musical advisor on Cold Mountain.
Thanks for posting about Shape Note/Sacred Harp music! 🙂
Wow. This is really interesting! I can’t decide if I like the sound or not, but I definitely want to know and hear more.
Heather D says
Rita Loveday says
Walland TN, near the Smokey Mountains is a great place the hear harp singing. The singers traditionally sing in a circle as the sound rises. We sang the doxilogy for our church once. Takes lots of practice!
Is Awake My Soul still on Netflix? I just did a search through my Roku box and am not finding it. …or on Hulu Plus or Amazon Prime.
I grew up in Arkansas and have always went to a little county church that my grandpa paired since before I was born until he died. Then my uncle took over. I never was interested in singing so I never went to singing school and learned the notes, but I could read music and knew all the songs anyway. We mainly used the Heavenly Highway songbooks when I was a kid, but we also had the green books that also had shapes. (I have no idea what the actual name of the book was, but we called it the green book lol.) Nowadays we have big fancy books but we still sing like that. My grandma was the song leader for years, until she started having problems standing up there long enough to lead singing.
I’m genuinely curious as I haven’t been to but maybe five other churches in my life (mostly for Saturday night singing!). How do you sing at church if you don’t sing like that?
Lainey Shell White says
My great grandfather taught shape notes in rural Virginia. My grandmother talked about it all the time. This would have been early 1900’s. I have a copy of an old shape note hymnal that we call the Red Back. Funny that Ashley’s is called the green book. I guess we know what color they are! Ha. My family does not know how to read shape notes, but we have always been intrigued with the sound. I loved this blog!
Elisa F. says
Beautiful, but kind of haunting. I think it’s meant to be joyful, but I definitely get a melancholy vibe.
btw, there are sacred harp singings every Sunday afternoon down in San Diego – no need to wait until you go east.
A whole new world. Thank you for revealing.