Imperfect Singers Find Community In Sacred Harp Singing

Feb 18, 2016

Martha and Bill Beverly of Kalamazoo at a Sacred Harp convention in Ireland last year.
Credit Martha Beverly

In a church choir, you know it’s unlikely that you’ll get to call the shots. The choir director picks which songs you sing and how you sing them. And if you’re not the best vocalist, you might be slowly - but politely - ushered out. But in individual homes across the country, people are holding more democratic singings where everyone is welcome. It’s called Sacred Harp singing


A Sacred Harp class in Ontario, 2014.
Credit Bill Beverly

The name Sacred Harp comes from a peculiar Christian tune book called The Sacred Harp. Instead of using round notes, every note in the book has a different shape that helps you find your way through the music.

Singer Marian Mitchell of Lansing says for those who already know how to read music, it can be confusing. But Kalamazoo Sacred Harp group founder Martha Beverly says if you can learn to read the notes, you can sing just about anything in Sacred Harp. 

"I want to hear that music. It's just like heroin for me. I want that sound."

 She says it’s a way of writing music specifically to help people sight read. Before they sing a song, the group sings the notes first.

“We aren’t trained voices, this is community singing. And so really anybody who can hold a pitch ought to be doing this. This is just for fun, for the community of it. And basically leave your vibrato at the door,” says Martha Beverly.

Beverly says, in Sacred Harp, the singers sit in a square facing each other. Each side is for a different vocal type.

“We don’t really do gigs," says Beverly. "I mean we did in our early years just to introduce the community, but now I think Kalamazoo knows who we are, what we are. But it’s most natural to sit in this hollow square where we see each other. We’re singing really with and for each other.”

Bill Beverly says this music goes way back - it’s considered America’s first choral music.

“The singing in the colonies was pretty rough and ready. It descended from the Psalm singers of England - which was not very delightful music. It was more shouted then sung. And so there were singing school masters who went around from place to place and taught congregations to sing and quite often they would write tunes. And a lot of the tunes that we have in this book were originally written by these singing school masters. The most prominent of which was William Billings who is generally considered to be the first American composer.”

Starting in the 1830s, Sacred Harp music was quickly overtaken by European harmonies. But Bill Beverly says it was still alive and well in the Appalachian Mountains and eventually spread to the South. He says it stayed there until after World War II, when people started moving into cities.

“And in those big churches in the cities, well they ran into all kinds of music that had very little to do with Sacred Harp. And so there were whole generations of people who simply did not sing this even though their parents and grandparents before them had done it for generations.”

Now Sacred Harp music is sung all over the United States. There are even groups in Ireland and Japan. Martha Beverly says people often drive several hours to attend singings. She says she and Bill have met hundreds of friends this way.

“We’ve seen sacred harp marriages happen in the 20 years we’ve been singing and Sacred Harp babies being born. It’s lovely,” she says.

Though it can be a spiritual experience, Marian Mitchell says you don’t need to be Christian or even religious.

“In fact, when you’re at singings, it’s kind of impolite to discuss religion or politics,” says Mitchell.

So why sing this music? Cecelia Kramer from Okemos says it’s just that sound.

“I want to hear that music. It’s just like heroin for me," she says. "I want that sound."

The next Sacred Harp sing in Kalamazoo is Sunday night from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. followed by a potluck.