When the Sacred Harp singing starts, the only option is to join in.
Seemingly out of nowhere, even for a Southern resident, Sacred Harp singing is undergoing a revival. The art has always had a focus on group participation, which might enable it to be picked up as a trend, but its apparent disconnectedness from most of popular music makes it an anomaly just the same. Between its unusual sound and distinct tradition, the Sacred Harp experience can be a little disorienting, but it still functions as an engaging art form, and the new I Belong to This Band: Eighty-Five Years of Sacred Harp Recordings compilation presents a picture of both its continuities and its varieties.
The music comes from the 19th-century songbook The Sacred Harp, and usually includes neither harps nor any other instruments. The vocalists divide into four groups, postioned in a square and facing the center. Each group sings one of the four parts, dictated by shape-note notation (a form in which the notes on the staff vary in shape to represent one of the music's four pitches -- fa, so, la, or mi). The resulting performance often produces unexpected harmonies, far from barbershop or other, more pop a cappella music. One of the effects of the arrangements and performance style is that the melody often remains buried, given an importance in sound only equal to the other parts.
With these heavily entwined vocal lines, the music moves away from the nearest related fields, such as hymns and choir music (and it's worlds away from gospel). At times, the performances even approach the sound of chants (even if they could never be confused with them). Initial listens to the music sound like an anthropological expedition, uncovering a culture you hadn't expected existed, one that probably vanished years ago.
Until you discover that nearly half of the 30 tracks come from 2006 singings. Some of the newer recordings are a little crisper and feature a larger group, but the performances fit in perfectly with those from the 1920s. The similarities point out the importance of tradition to the form, where songs and skills both are frequently passed down directly, and interaction remains an important part of the process. Even the gap between professional and amateur on this collection blurs. While some of the groups are more skilled (and trained), the overall effect remains similar across the disc, a mix of spiritual elevation and musical oddity.
Faith and strangeness may not be typical selling points, but I Belong to This Band works as a surprisingly easy listen. The catchier tracks, such as 1928's "The Christian Hope", can get in your head as easily as pop, while performances like "Invocation" can be as elevating as classic gospel. Even the more chant-like songs produce their own dramatic, and possibly martial effect.
While that accessibility and the disc's consistency are wonderful, the sequencing and tracklist inhibit some of the potential of the project. With the recent recordings interspersed throughout, we lose a sense of the new. Given that the record serves as a companion to the documentary Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, the sequence makes a little more sense, as it conveys the flow and focus of the film. More important, perhaps, the disc lacks any recordings between 1960 and 2006. It might be a tricky task of excavation, but in the liner notes David Warren Steel claims, "Since the 1960s ... recordings have mutiplied." While that suggests this period of music might be easier to unearth, the absence of it leaves it up to the listener, likely a novice, to guess at what went on (or to assume tradition continued unabated).
The compilation gives us some key ideas for further listening, but the track order breaks up recordings by the same or similar groups, taking the focus (probably appropriately) away from performers and placing it on performances. Even so, key figures shine through, most notably Whit Denson, who even appears by himself on "New Morning Sun", singing four parts and playing the piano to create a piece that stands out even on a unique disc.
While the music on that disc (including songs opening with the singing of the musical syllables instead of the words) might initially feel out of place, it's quickly adapted to, and yields continued rewards as hymns or as intricate but direct compositions. The music seems to be connected to nothing and to have come from nowhere, but it also relies on connectedness and is going nowhere, so the only option is to join in.