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Voices Lifted Together

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Is Sacred Harp singing the next “authentic” style to be popularized?

    The Mount Pleasant Home Primitive Baptist Church on the outskirts of Birmingham is a long way from Hollywood, literally and figuratively.

    So it was a little strange one Sunday to hear a group of people in the tiny bare-walled church swapping stories about Anthony Minghella, the Oscar-winning director of “The English Patient,” who was pronounced by one elderly Alabamian that day to be “a pretty decent guy.”

    A woman near him agreed, but as she loaded her paper plate with lunchtime chicken casserole, she added, “I do wish they’d hold the premiere in New York instead of out in L.A.”

    Her preference was only practical: she and a handful of others would soon fly to the premiere of the new big-budget movie directed by Mr. Minghella, “Cold Mountain.” They would also hear their own clear, strong voices booming from the theater’s speakers as they watched the movie for the first time alongside the director and two of its stars, Nicole Kidman and Jude Law.

    When this Civil War drama opens nationwide on Christmas, the hope among these singers is that it will accomplish something more meaningful than a glamorous trip to Hollywood. They hope it will introduce their kind of music – a powerful and beautiful but relatively obscure form of a cappella choral singing known as Sacred Harp – to a broader audience.

    The music, also known as shape-note or fasola singing, has been waiting a long time for that attention. The style of singing, whose rudiments stretch back at least to Elizabethan England, flourished in Colonial New England and in its present form took deep root in the rural South, where it is still sung today in four-part harmony. But many of its practitioners – whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents sang it in little churches and town squares throughout the South – fear it could die out. So they are waiting eagerly to see whether the use of Sacred Harp music on the movie’s soundtrack, released on Dec. 16, could do for their music what the soundtrack for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” the Coen brothers comedy, did for rural blues and bluegrass. (The “O Brother” album unexpectedly sold more than five million copies and won the album-of-the-year Grammy in 2002.)

    In early reviews of the “Cold Mountain” soundtrack – which also includes performances by Alison Krauss and the White Stripes’ Jack White – several music writers have called the Sacred Harp singers a revelation. Anyone who has ever listened to recordings of such singing (the musicologist Alan Lomax has made several well-regarded field recordings) will know why.

    But to attend a weekend singing, as they are called, is to experience the music in the full-throated way it was intended and to understand why the Sacred Harp tradition has endured in a world that seems to have passed it by.

    ….The music is called shape note because the heads of the notes in the book are given distinctive shapes – squares, triangles, diamonds and ovals – to indicate pitch. The melodies of the songs can often be traced back hundreds of years to English and Scottish folk tunes. Many of the lyrics, nearly all religious, date from the 1800’s, and they lend the songs evocative names like “Panting for Heaven,” “Sweet Affliction” and “The Last Words of Copernicus.”

    Yet for all the religious trappings of the singings, they have nearly always existed apart from church services. “Altogether the tradition is a curious blend of the sacred and the secular,” writes Buell E. Cobb Jr., whose book, “The Sacred Harp: The Tradition and Its Music,” is one of the definitive histories of the phenomenon.

    ….The question that remains as the movie opens of course is whether the record-buying public will also appreciate that spiritual quality, which is much more pronounced than that of the “O Brother” soundtrack. While bluegrass and rural blues exist at a distinct remove from pop music, Sacred Harp can seem to be on another planet altogether, with haunting, ancient harmonies and lyrics that make Ralph Stanley’s “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow” sound like a jingle by comparison. (In the Sacred Harp song “Ye Heedless Ones,” to cite one example, the message is unvarnished: “Ye heedless ones who wildly stroll/The grave will soon become your bed/Where silence reigns and vapors roll/In solemn darkness ’round your head.”)

    “I don’t think it’s going to become the cool new thing really, in the ‘O Brother’ sense,” said Tim Eriksen, a longtime singer who helped arrange the recording session for the two Sacred Harp songs on the soundtrack. “I don’t know if the general public is quite ready for this. But a lot more people are going to hear it, and that can only be a good thing.” [NY Times]

Any Sacred Harp singers out there? Checking out the samples available on Amazon, this is very powerful stuff.

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About Eric Olsen