Rhode Island Artscape: Sacred Harp Singing In Rhode Island

Apr 24, 2014

Earlier this month dozens of musicians from across New England and beyond gathered in Providence for the eleventh annual ‘Rhode Island All-Day Sacred Harp Singing.’ If you’ve never heard of it, here’s a clue: it doesn’t involve any harps.  It's the subject of this month's Rhode Island Artscape.

Sacred Harp singers at the Meeting House on the east side of Providence.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

That’s the sound of about one hundred people, gathered at the Quaker Meeting House on the East Side of Providence.  They’re taking part in the state’s largest gathering of Sacred Harp singers.  The eleventh annual ‘Rhode Island All-Day Sacred Harp Singing.’

They came from all across New England, and the mid-Atlantic for the event.  During which they sang hundreds of songs, one after the other for hours on end.

These people aren’t your regular trained choir.  They’re using a practice known shape-note singing.  That’s a way of writing music for those without classical training.

“Shape note-notation, links a particular shaped note-head to a scale degree,” said  Kiri Miller, a professor of music Brown University; who—full disclosure—is also the wife of one of my co-workers.

Miller says an actual printed shape—a rectangle, a triangle, a square—is used to represent a specific scale degree.

“So a lot of people are familiar with the Do-Re-Mi system from like the Sound Music or early childhood music education or whatever,” said Miller.

So in shape-notation there’s an individual shape attached to each of the syllables used in that system.

“So basically it’s this sort of shorthand where if you’re looking at a page of printed music and you see a triangle you know that that’s a Fa.  And if you see a circle you know that that’s a Sol.  And when you’re sight singing you’re doing this process of translating the shapes into the scale syllables that match those shapes,” said Miller.

So that’s shape-note singing.  Now what’s Sacred Harp singing? That just refers to the title of the book of songs the group sings from.  There are other tune-books, but the Sacred Harp is by far the most popular.

By the way, if it seems like it sound like church service, well one wouldn’t be right, but one wouldn’t be wrong either.  Sacred Harp singing grew up in the American church.

Singers being led by a young participant.
Credit Justin Squizzero

Shape note singing began at the turn of the nineteenth century as a way to teach people how to read music without extensive training said Kiri Miller.

“In the early American music education movements there tended to be an orientation towards improving church music.  So improving the quality of choral singing in churches.  So often your sight singing would dovetail with your religious practice in some way,” said Miller.

Throughout the 1800’s Sacred Harp singing spread throughout the North and South, but as music education grew, Sacred Harp looked more and more like a shortcut and fell out of favor. 

So I was curious as to how all the singers in Providence came to the Sacred Harp.

“My name’s Gwen Gathner, I’m from New York City.  I started when I went to college.  I went to Smith in Western Mass, and there’s actually a singing on campus,” said Gathner.

“My name is Mason Shefa, and I come from New Haven. At Yale I found out that there was a shape-note singing and I went to one meeting and I fell in love with it,” adds Shefa.

“My name is Deidre Montgomery from Somerville Massachusetts.  My first semester at Amherst College, fall of 2006, I took an introduction to music class, and my professors happened to be sacred harp singers,” said Montgomery.

The vast majority of people I spoke with were introduced to Sacred Harp in college.  Some said they thought it was because academics at various institutions rediscovered Shape-note singing, and passed it on to their students. 

And of handful of attendees I spoke with, only one, Mason Shefa, identified as a Christian.

“I definitely approached it from a religious perspective, I do identify as Christian. So for me there’s a two pronged sense that I get during the singing.  It’s half the community and forming a good relationship with the other people.  And also worshipping God,” said Shefa.

Many of the singers did not come from religious backgrounds.  Some liken Sacred Harp singing to the folk revival: simply a place where all people can come together to make music.

Kiri Miller prepares a pot luck meal to be shared, an important part of any Sacred Harp singing.
Credit Justin Squizzero

But surrounded by friends, and uplifting music, it’s hard not to separate the spiritual from the secular, said singer Patty Warry.

“I guess I don’t have a really straightforward answer to what kind of religious experience it is for me. What I really value is that it brings together people who have many different religious perspectives, including no particular religious belief.  And that’s what I love about it,” said Warry.

Fellow singer Gwen Gathner agreed.

“For me it’s a very spiritual experience to sing this really powerful music with people whom I really care about, but, it’s not religious as such,” said Gathner.

Singer Deidre Montgomery says for her, the issue is as complicated as it is simple.

“I don’t know if there’s really a way that you can get a bunch of people in a room singing together, anything, and there’s not something spiritual about, like the way we're all connected.  It’s just undeniably powerful,” said Montgomery.