Category Archives: Sacred Harp

Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music

I just finished reading The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music  by Buell E. Cobb, Jr.  Because I sing Sacred Harp, I found this book very interesting, and enlightening. The chapters are:

1. The Tradition
2. The Music
3. The Background and Early History
4. The Revisions
5. The Conventions
6. The Outlook

There are two appendixes: one a list of rather current Traditional Sacred Harp Singings, including dates and locations; and the other, selected songs from The Sacred Harp.

Although the immediately obvious difference between singing Sacred Harp and traditional hymns is Sacred Harp’s introduction of the tune by use of “singing the notes,” there are technical differences as well.   Two keys ones are “dispersed harmony,” and crossing of voices. From the book:

” According to one spokesman, remembering the definition as it was passed down to him, ‘dispersed harmony’ occurs whenever ‘a chord exceeds two octaves or the alto goes above ‘soprano.’’ …(crossing the voices), an inevitable result of the contrapuntal nature of the songs…in many of the songs either the bass or the alto is likely to go above the melody line, the bass crossing the male voices of the tenor or the alto crossing the female voices of the tenor…The crossing of voices of course necessitates the printing of each part on a separate staff.”

and then…
“In order to squeeze in several verses…many of the songs list different verses under each part, a system which makes for difficulty when a singer is unfamiliar with either words or music and must look for the words considerably above or below the line of music to be sung.”

That is an understatement! Here is an example of one of the shorter (and therefore easier to follow) songs:


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Because I am an alto, and have lived in the place referenced, I enjoyed this passage quoted from a 1934 book, Carl Carmer’s Stars Fell on Alabama:
” Carmer does not particularize the date or the location of the singing any further than the ‘Sand Mountain’ area, a traditional stronghold of the Sacred Harp in the twentieth century.  In the author’s firsthand account of the singing session, with a crowd he estimates at “surely more than two thousand people,” this bit of dialogue is recorded:

 “Trebles on the left, Basses on the right.  Tenors in the center.”
“What about the altos?” I whispered to Knox.
“Don’t mention the world,” he said. “The real Sacred Harpers think it’s a newfangled and wicked affectation.  They’ve been having a big fight with the Christian Harmony folks about it.”