Last Saturday morning, while many Hyde Parkers were still recovering from Friday night festivities, a barrage of loud choral music was spilling out of a room in the University of Chicago’s Goodspeed Hall. The gathering of the Sacred Harp singers was a joining of the religious and nonreligious alike, incidentally in praise of God, but mostly celebrating music and its force.
A variety of shape-note singing, Sacred Harp developed in early eighteenth-century England out of a desire to make music more readable and participatory for churchgoers, and its spread to the American South in the later part of the century led to an abundance of American shape-note composing and singing in rural and Southern regions. Today, the style’s adherents generally consist of shape-note enthusiasts rather than strictly churchgoers, and the same held true for the Goodspeed Hall singing. Attended by Hyde Parkers as well as people from neighboring states, the participatory and unique nature of Sacred Harp singing has built a community of people who otherwise would never have met–a transportation policymaker from the North Side, an ethnomusicologist specializing in Jewish music, and a transplanted Alabaman who grew up singing Sacred Harp were among the attendees.
“It’s very accepting,” Hyde Park singer Jim Helke explained, noting that only about one out of every ten people in the room were new to him. “Even if you sound awful, people encourage you to come back.” His point was well-illustrated–while the music certainly didn’t sound awful, the missed notes were often buried in the sheer participatory volume. It was singing for singing’s sake; precision was for another time and place.
The singing, which lasted from 10 am until 3 pm, was larger than most of the shorter Sacred Harp gatherings, which usually occur weekly in different members’ homes. Broken up by a massive potluck lunch, known traditionally as “dinner on the grounds,” the day was fortifying in multiple ways. As grad student Rachel Adelstein guided me toward the potluck I hadn’t contributed to, she explained, “We honor our guests by feeding them until they burst.”