Contrary to what the name suggests, “The Sacred Harp” does not, in fact, involve harps.
Published in 1844, “The Sacred Harp” is actually a collection of Christian a cappella hymns and anthems for bass, treble, tenor, and alto. While pieces have been added since 1844, the original songs have not been altered since the first edition. Despite the anthology’s immutable nature, each piece takes on new life each time the songbook is opened.
Because the hymns have traditionally only been sung in large groups, it isn’t often that they are recited. With roughly 150 participants, the 26th Annual Midwest Convention presented a rare opportunity to sing “The Sacred Harp.” The vocalists were arranged in a large square, each side corresponding to a harmonic part. Before every song, a member of the choir walked to the center and called out a number, which referred to a page in the book. Often without further guidance, the whole group would break into harmony, notes glissading off the frescos of Ida Noyes Hall while feet pounded out rhythm after rhythm.
One of the co-chairs of the convention, Carol Mosley, described the social atmosphere of the event, saying, “Sacred Harp singing is quintessentially democratic–there are no leaders.” Although she was in charge of this particular event, the administrative duties fall on a new person every time a group of Sacred Harp singers meets. As Mosley put it, “people step up and do things. No one is in charge.”
A middle-aged woman from the northeast of Ohio had another perspective: “It’s like a big family. The singing creates friendships, social bonding that rises above typical economic and political [ones]” Most of the singers came from the Midwest, hailing from Madison, St. Paul, and, of course, Chicago area. Yet other singers came from as far away as Georgia, Ontario, and California. In between songs, twenty-somethings mingled with the grey and the balding. There was no easy way to pin the crowd down and place it in a certain category, considering the events broad appeal. “The thing that’s beautiful about this, it’s singing for the sheer joy of singing,” said Mosley.
John, an airline employee in his thirties, could attest to Mosley’s sentiments, admitting that he turned down an offer to attend International Mr. Leather the night before in order to spend Sunday at the convention. “It grabs you or it doesn’t. But if it grabs you, it grabs you for life.”