Late one summer I received a call from my brother, Vernon, inviting me to a Sacred Harp Singing in Henderson, Texas, I gladly accepted. Somewhere in the dusty bottom drawer of my memory I had an awareness of this old-fashioned style of singing, but that was all it was, an awareness.
I almost left my camera at home. After all this was a ‘singing,’ an event meant for the ears not the eye. Could something primarily auditory translate into something visual? I was intrigued.
Even before we entered the Henderson Community Center, the sounds of music greeted us, music vaguely familiar. The full-throated delivery of songs sung a capella conjured images of ‘old-time’ Pentecostal tent meetings and of Primitive Baptist ‘all day singing and dinner on the ground.’ It was music that was familial and steeped in tradition.
This form of singing had its beginnings in early 18th century England. A rural church music evolved with a number of distinctive traits that were passed down from tradition to tradition. By the mid 18th century this traditional form of singing found it way to America and by the end of the 18th century had spread to the Midwest and to the South.
Singing schools were formed to train young people in the correct way to sing sacred music. Shape notes were developed to make the teaching of singing easier. These singing schools used a four-note system to teach sight reading to people without musical training. “Shape notes” resemble standard round notes in every respect except that the head has one of four shapes, a triangle, oval, square, or diamond. Each of these shape notes correspond with a particular syllable; fa = triangle, sol = oval, la = square, and me = diamond and each indicates the different pitches. While most of us are familiar with the octave scale, do-re-me-fa-sol-la-ti-do, an octave scale in Sacred Harp music is fa-sol-la-fa sol-la-mi-fa.
The first shape note songbook was published in 1801. In 1844 B.F. White and Elisha J. King compiled, transcribed, and composed tunes and published them in a tunebook, titled “The Sacred Harp.” The groups that used this tunebook and the gatherings of these groups took on the name “Sacred Harp.” Sacred Harp groups always sing a capella, the name “sacred harp” refers to the human voice or vocal cords, Gods Devine instrument. Traditional feeling is that there is no need for instruments.
The songbook (Sacred Harp calls it a tunebook) is a large, sturdy, rectangular book; easily held with one hand and large enough to read while singing. The Sacred Harp tunebook has a traditional horizontal 4-line format and is divided into four parts: treble, alto, tenor, and bass. Each line corresponds with one of the four voice parts, Treble - top line, Alto - second line, Tenor - third line, and Bass - bottom line.
When I entered the main hall I saw the people sitting in an unusual arrangement. The chairs formed a square facing the center and within the center square stood the song leader. This was not a random placement of chairs. Sacred Harp singers sit in a “hollow square” with each voice part taking one of the four sides and facing center. The song leader stands in the center, facing the tenor section and calls the song by its page number. The leader begins humming a good pitch, the singers reply with the opening notes of their own parts, and the song begins immediately. After the song concludes there is no applause and, the song leader steps away and is replaced by another. There is no single leader or conductor; rather, the participants take turns in leading. Everyone has a chance to lead the song of his or her choice. Newcomers are welcome, and encouraged to lead.
Leading is done in an open-palm style, and determines the tempo by the beating of the hand in an up and down, pumping fashion. This was very distinctive, not the usual fluid movements of a orchestra conductor, rather a simple up and down, almost pounding movement. As I listened and watched, I observed many members beat time with the leader.
While many of the songs are hymns rarely is Sacred Harp sung in a religious service.
Sacred Harp groups will tell you that they don’t perform, that they sing as an end in itself. They view their tradition as a participatory one, emphasizing participation, not performance. Those who gather sing for themselves and for each other, and not for an audience.
With time shape notes and the customary participatory style of music was challenged by the urban-based “better music” movement. This movement started in New England and was spearheaded by Lowell Mason, an advocated of a more “scientific” style of sacred music. This contemporary style gradually prevailed, largely because people did not want to be viewed as “old fashioned.” By the time of the Civil War shape notes and the traditional style of music disappeared from the cities and gradually disappeared from the Northeast and Midwest. However, the rural South stubbornly held to the ways of tradition and Sacred Harp singings continue to this day.
I found myself mesmerized and drawn in visually to these elements, the hollow square seating arraignment, the rhythmic movements of the hands and arms, and the prominent tunebook. I became aware that to understand these elements is to understand Sacred Harp.
Now, I do things a little different, in East Texas parlance you might say ‘bass-ack-wards’ (that’s ‘backwards’ for the uninitiated). Instead of doing research ahead of time, I prefer to photograph first and then research, like I said bass-ack-wards. The conventional and perhaps more proper way would be to do the research first, getting an idea of what you want to photograph, what there is to see, and set about photographing these elements.
I prefer to go with into a project with a clean slate and let the place tell me its story. I ask myself, “what is here, what is unique, what can you tell me?” I visually immerse myself, absorbing the surroundings, the culture, character, and feelings of the place. This way someone else’s thoughts or perspectives do not influence me. Also, if I research first I tend to pre-determine what I should be looking for and this takes away from the spontaneity of the moment. I react to what I see, and photograph accordingly and after returning home I then, research. This self-discovery method gives me a sense of connection with the subject and therefore, deeper meaning.