Various Artists: Awake, My Soul/Help Me to Sing

Something old and something new: a stunning portrait of Sacred Harp singing and its legacy.

Various Artists

Awake My Soul/Help Me to Sing

Label: Awake Productions
US Release Date: 2008-10-14
UK Release Date: Available as import
"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.






Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.