The Sacred Harp Club Band

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.”

1 comment for “The Sacred Harp Club Band

  1. SH Singer
    December 1, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    “Sacred Harp Club Band”? OK, weird enough, not sure what that’s supposed to mean. Moving on… “Sacred Harp” did not develop in England, old or new, in the 18th century: the Sacred Harp is a tunebook that was first published in Georgia in 1844. Shape notes were used in New England in the 18th century, if that’s what you’re thinking of. But singing out of the Sacred Harp spread to New England in the 1970s; it didn’t originate in New England in any century. No, Christian believers are not in the majority in Hyde Park, I’m pretty sure, but if the people you met at the Hyde Park singing told you that that is also the case in Sacred Harp singing in general, and in places such as the heart of traditional Sacred Harp singing in states such as Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They need to travel outside of Chicago and learn something before they generalize from their own small corner of the Sacred Harp world out to the rest of the Sacred Harp singing community.

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