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Joy of Singing Keeps Sacred Harp Tradition Alive

The name Sacred Harp music may conjure up an image of winged angels playing golden stringed instruments. But the only instrument heard is the human voice. The term refers to a collection of hymns first published in the 19th century and still used today at Sacred Harp singings in communities large and small across the United States.

Although some of the hymns have titles that are familiar to most Christians, they sound quite different when sung in the Sacred Harp tradition. "In a regular choir, the rule is if you can't hear your neighbor, you're singing too loudly," says Blake Morris -- chairman of the 13th annual James River Convention, which was held in November in Richmond, Virginia. "In Sacred Harp, the rule is if you can hear your neighbor, you're not doing your part." With everyone singing as loudly as possible, the melody is usually drowned out, but the resulting harmonies are rich and sonorous.

Sacred Harp singers sit on benches or chairs arranged in a square facing inward, with tenors sitting opposite altos and the bass section opposite the sopranos. The number of singers determines the size of the square and the number of rows on each side. Every singer has an opportunity to stand in the center of the square and lead the others in a song from the Sacred Harp collection. Although one person may lead several times, no song is ever repeated in the same day.

Some of the songs in The Sacred Harp book are patriotic tunes, but most are hymns with lyrics inspired by the Jewish or Christian bible. But singings today are not necessarily religious events. At the recent gathering in Richmond, Jim North said he appreciated the inclusiveness of the events. "The people don't care who you are, how much money you make, or what your theology is," Mr. North said. "You just come, sit in the square, open your book, open your mouth, and sing."

It does not even matter how well you sing, as long as you enjoy it. "I love to sing," said Mari Quodomine. "I'm not that great of a singer, and it's a real chance for me to enjoy it." Ms. Quodomine, a Buddhist, said that she also enjoys helping preserve an American tradition.

Sacred Harp singers will travel hundreds of kilometers to participate in conventions, or large singings. The James River Convention attracted about 60 singers - including Earnest Blake, who traveled more than 700 kilometers south from Ithaca, New York. "It's a heck of a trip," Mr. Blake said, "but I was told that you have to come south in order to learn about the tradition."

The tradition of Sacred Harp singing was preserved in America's rural Southeast, and has only in the past 15 years or so begun to spread to communities as far north and west as Alaska. Singings remain much more common in places like Alabama, where Joan Aldrich grew up. She has been singing since she was four, and remembers a time when it was difficult to find a parking place if you did not arrive early to a singing. "You knew every Sunday when you went to a singing there would be a church full of people," Ms. Aldrich recalled at the Richmond convention. "A lot of the singings I went to when I was growing up are no longer in existence, because there just were not enough young people involved in the singings to keep them going. But the positive thing is, it's growing all over the United States."

The 2004 Directory of Sacred Harp singings lists 136 singings that take place at least once a month in communities across America -- plus two that meet in Canada and one in the United Kingdom. In addition, there are more than 260 annual Sacred Harp conventions throughout the year.