“In many ways, the story of ‘The Sacred Harp’ is the story of its stubborn refusal to give up its old ways as well as the story of the subversion of the cultural and musical norms of the society that does not understand it.”
— from the liner notes to Awake My Soul
When The Sacred Harp hymnal was first published in 1844, Sacred Harp singing was already well-established in America. As early as the late 1700s, singing teachers made a circuit of New England towns, offering singing schools to people who were usually musically illiterate. These teachers borrowed the practice of solfege favored by the English, of assigning syllables to musical tones (the English system limited itself to fa, sol, la, and mi rather than the seven syllables favored in Europe and made eternal by The Sound of Music). By the turn of the 19th century, this had evolved into shaped notes, where normal musical notation was replaced with shapes (squares, circles, triangles, and diamonds) on the note-heads. This allowed untrained singers to memorize a song’s melody without worrying about the lyrics. As the singers sat in four groups, arranged by vocal range and facing an open center area known as the “hollow square”, they would run through the sounds represented by the melody’s shapes, getting a feel for the speed and cadence of the song before launching into it proper.
Flash forward to the present day, and Sacred Harp singing has changed not one bit. It’s more of a Southern thing now, after musical tastes up north apparently wearied of its “primitive” and unfashionable ways, but the basic set-up is the same. Four groups of singers, buffeting a leader in the hollow square with what’s been described as a physical rush of sound, creating an experience that makes the leader feel as if he or she is being lifted up by the assembled voices.
Awake My Soul seeks to capture that experience, and to document the sounds of genuine Sacred Harp singing. On the first count, it can’t possibly succeed. It’s obvious from these unadorned field recordings that Sacred Harp singing thrives on the immediacy of being in the room, and of partaking of the fellowship to be found in all-day a capella singings fueled by massive amounts of country cooking. It’s not geared towards a passive audience. However, in listening to these blends of untrained voices coming together to sing songs that haven’t changed in generations, a listener can get a sense of the tradition and spirituality found in these tales that describe uplift and tribulation in equal measure. And a listener will quickly discover that these aren’t simple hymns that resound from countless Protestant churches on any given Sunday. The cascading voices of “Russia”, the rise and fall of the competing groups in “Stratfield”, or the melodies in unexpected places throughout the collection reveal the complex construction of many Sacred Harp songs. And despite the sense of distance provided by the recording process, a fair amount of power still comes through.
If Awake My Soul consisted of only authentic Sacred Harp singing, it would be an invaluable archive of a form of music that few have heard of, much less heard. However, it also boasts a second disc, Help Me to Sing, which features contemporary artists interpreting songs from the Sacred Harp hymnal. First of all, this probably stands as a matter of no small controversy among Sacred Harp practitioners, who would look askance at the instrumentation and vocal approaches taken by the likes of the Innocence Mission, John Paul Jones, Jim Lauderdale, Richard Buckner, Murry Hammond, and others. But as the compilation’s liner notes attest, this second disc isn’t meant to be a step in Sacred Harp’s evolution, or any kind of suggestion of a better way. It’s meant to stand on its own and to spark interest in the more traditional material that stands behind it.
The artists on Awake My Soul received only two rules: remain faithful to the Tenor melody line, and remain faithful to the lyrics. From there, they were free to do as they wished. Few of them go off into left field, instead staying true to the blended/competing vocals approach even though they had considerably fewer voices to work with. And where instrumentation is used, it’s often of a well-matched Appalachian fiddle variety. Of the interpretations that strive to stretch the boundaries, there are some interesting results. Surprisingly, the liveliest version comes courtesy of Elvis Perkins, who throws on a full band arrangement that’s totally at odds with the original version, and which ends up sounding like latter day Bob Dylan. All Things Bright & Beautiful bring a driving drum intro reminiscent of the Cure, and Byrdsy guitar. Richard Buckner wallows in sepulchral guitar and hand-of-doom percussion, and it’s safe to say that he’s right at home (in fact, it might be the most accessible thing he’s recorded in years).
By and large, though, most artists settle for gentle tweaks. Rayna Gilbert and John Paul Jones give “Blooming Youth” a sympathetic Irish ballad vibe, while the Innocence Mission search for truth in deft vocal interplay and light instrumentation. Jim Lauderdale (with Jeni & Billy) gives “The Christian’s Hope” a rough-edged folk treatment, Tim Eriksen takes a traditional lens to “Wrestling Jacob”, and Woven Hand descends into the heart of “Consecration” (it might be argued that this is the compilation David Eugene Edwards was born for). Overall, the effect is to make the songs smaller and more intimate, with little of the first disc’s sanctified thunder. For the most part, it works, and quite a few of these interpretations stand on their own as folk, indie pop, or bluegrass songs.
Not meant to replace Sacred Harp music in any way, the music on Help Me to Sing instead casts an isolating light on many of the elements that make traditional Sacred Harp singing so resonant. The elegant melodies, the often poetic language, the sense of joy and hardship, the willingly offered spiritual vulnerability — many of Help Me to Sing‘s compositions pay fitting homage to these things. Sacred Harp singing is getting a fair amount of press these days, thanks to the Awake My Soul documentary (to which the first disc of the compilation is a soundtrack), as well as articles in magazines like Paste and The Oxford American. Not to worry, though. The genre won’t let the publicity go to its head. After all, it’s been keeping the faith for hundreds of years, trusting that some folks will eventually find it and carry it on.