The documentary Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp told the story of the origins of shape note singing, and of the Sacred Harp collection in particular, as well as the recent revival of this type of vocal music. With the release of the two-disc soundtrack, we are treated with the full recordings of the songs referenced in the documentary, including the solfège – singing the song with the names of the notes rather than the words in order to learn the music. The second disc of the set features 20 renditions of Sacred Harp tunes by a diverse group of folk and pop performers. The set is treated as two different albums, each with its own title.
Awake My Soul: The Original Soundtrack
You would probably need to be a fan of Sacred Harp or Early American music to fully appreciate this recording. Traditional Sacred Harp singing is not done for performance, so there are generally no considerations for any potential Earthly audience. Singers pour their heart and soul out in voice, singing as loudly and stridently as possible, with only a few exceptions. This results in nasal-sounding female vocals and slurred syllables, which are difficult to listen to for long periods of time.
These are field recordings, captured from several singings between July 2004 and July 2006, with each instance containing a different set of singers and surrounding environments. The recordings presented here are about as clear and balanced as can be done under the circumstances. Most of the voices are blended, and no individual singer stands out. I can’t tell if the alto part is more prominent because it’s the part I usually sing, or if it’s because the altos in the groups are particularly strong voices.
Help Me to Sing: Songs of the Sacred Harp
The adaptations of Sacred Harp songs presented in this recording are very different from the field recordings or live singings that the listener may be more familiar with. However, for those who are not interested in Sacred Harp singing, this album may be a pleasant introduction to the songs themselves, without the distractions of solfège or unfamiliar song structures.
Most of the performances of the songs take the basic outline of the melody, which is often buried in the tenor line in traditional singing, and combine it with either the original words or variations thereof. The rest of the chords are mixed in with other instrumentation and occasionally, with other singers. However, the end result is more like something you would hear on an Adult Album Alternative radio station than something found in an Alan Lomax collection.
There are still a few tidbits here and there that will please the singer’s soul, such as the chorus of “David’s Lamentation,” performed by The Good Players. The spine-tingling four-part harmonies of the line “oh, my son” are included, with sparse instrumentation backing them. My favorite Sacred Harp song (and a favorite of many other singers), “Africa,” is given a delicate treatment, delivered in the sweet vocals of The Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris with minimal acoustic instrumentation backing her up.
The liner notes for this set are extensive, and well worth the read. In addition to essays by those involved with the production of these albums, there is also commentary by the performers on Help Me to Sing, photographs from singings, and examples of shape note music. Thus, Awake My Soul / Help Me To Sing is continuing the preservational and educational mission of the documentary which inspired this collection.