Sacred Harp Singing Leeds

Shape Note

A couple of months ago, I was researching the prevailance of gaming in everyday life for a essay for my PG Dip, when I came accross the work of academic Kiri Miller, whose excellent book Playing Along looks at the music of video games such as GTA and the experience of learning music through the Internet and being part of the Internet commmunity.

All this was fascinating, but it was her other work on the history and community of Sacred Harp singing in America that really struck me. What was Sacred Harp? It sounded vaguely cutesy, folky, possibly Irishy, and I like all those things, so I did a bit of Googleing and found a wonderful musical/social movement, that springs from a religious tradition, that for some weird reason really got to me.

I’ve always loved singing, even though I’m not that good at it, always sang in choirs in school and college and enjoy singing with my friends and family. I think having a mother who was as good as a professional choral singer, and who should have been a professional singer, and a lot of friends who are terrifyingly talented musicians has always made me slightly unconfident in my own vocal abilities, because you can hear if you’re not that good, espcially standing next to someone who is that good, but the idea of getting together to sing songs in harmony, and it not really mattering if you sound perfect every time, but just singing for the love of it, that really got to me.

I found myself watching endless clips on YouTube of Sacred Harp sings in the US and the UK and Ireland, becoming more and more intrigued as to how one gets involved. Is it a church thing? Does one go to a special club? I haven’t gone to church regularly since I was a teenager, would it be wrong of me to stand and sing religious songs with religious people when I’m not sure entirly I absolutly agree with their faith?

Then, after a lot of research and trawling of the website, I discovered that there was to be a Sacred Harp sing in Leeds, around the corner from my house, in a months time, and there was also to be a buffet.

So on Saturday, I went. And I am now in love with it.

I don’t know enough about the history of Sacred Harp to explain it all properly, I only know it started in America a couple of hundred years ago, and now takes place all over the world. You meet up, in a hall or a church or a garden or wherever, and split yourself into parts, that sit in a square facing each other. Then you sing, one after the other, songs randomly chosen by whoever is leading the choir for that song (you volunteer at the beginning of the day to be a leader and then a secretary type person calls your name in turn). The songs all come from a songbook called the Sacred Harp, there are about 500 songs to go through each lasting less that five minutes. Each song is written in a kind of musical notation called shape singing, and you pitch the song yourself. There are four, sometimes three, parts that sing in harmony or fugue and you literally just go for it. You’re not practising the same song over and over, it doesn’t matter if you get the notes or the words wrong, you’re all just singing together, for the love of the sound.

You sing the song the first time using only the notes, in order to get the notes right in your head, using the shapes that are named fa so la and mi, and then sing it again with the words. The person leading the song decides how many verses to sing, if they want to hear bits again, and how fast or slow the song is sung.

Some of the songs are incredibly sad, some are joyful. Some are very very very Jesus Loves Me, other are more generally religious in theme. But I didn’t feel in any way like I was being forced or presured to feel like I was taking part in a religious experience or right. There were many people there who were also not religious, and some who were, and some from other faiths. It is the music that is the thing, and the feeling you get from bringing voices together.

On Saturday we started with a music school that took you through the shapes and the different parts. I’ve got quite a low voice, so I sat with the altos, which I loved because you don’t know how fustrating it is when every bloody song in popular culture is sung by women with high floaty voices. We pack umph, and it was so liberating to be able to sing out with some body behind my voice, to feel like actually it is OK to sing low, to blast out, you don’t need to be floaty all the time.

We also were encoraged to bring a dish to share, which is like the best thing ever, as I bloody love buffets and you only have to think about making one thing. I made a potato gratin, which was very well recieved, and had a lovely, vaguely healthy plate of food, including a beautiful pomegranete and couscous salad that I am blatos stealing the recipie for.

sacred harp buffet

Part of a Sacred Harp sing is also a very emotional and beautufully done thing, remembering those that have died in the past year and singing a song to their memory. A list of people who were ill, as well as those who had passed, was read out and we sang a song for them, knowing that those names each ment something to someone in the room. The whole singing experience was very emotionally free, there were tears from many throughout, but they were good healthy tears. Having spent the last five years ‘being OK’, it was so nice to see grief and sadness being expressed so openly and honestly by grownups, in a way that obviously helped them. My mum died a while ago now, but I hope she knows I was singing that song for her.

The community I met was so welcoming, so friendly and so happy to have someone ask them questions about themselves and the tradition of Sacred Harp. The altos I was sat with couldn’t have been a nicer bunch of women, and if they ever end up reading this I want to thank them. I will be coming to the big meet up in Durham in September, and I really really hope more Leeds sings are organised in the future. There was a woman I was talking to who discovered Sacred Harp last October and now travels all over the country to participate in the sings, clearly this is a very expensive and adddictive hobby! There is to be a sing in Haworth in November as well, which I will definitely be going to as an opportunity to sing like that in Bronte country should not be missed!

Part of the experience that moved me the most, and which I will always be grateful for being allowed to experience, is standing in the square during a sing, and hearing the harmonies grow and fade around you. I have no idea which number song it was they sang for me whilst I quietly tried to hold it together, but I loved it, I could see people looking at me hearing it all come together in the centre for the first time and knowing what I was feeling and feeling happy for me, and the hug from the wonderful woman leading that song at the end was so very welcome.

I came to Sacred Harp in a very strange way, but I am so glad I did, I honestly think I was ‘meant’ to find this. I feel more whole for it.

The singers were kind enought to allow me to record one of the songs they sang, which I foolishly forgot to write down the name of, but here they are, in all their glory.


2 thoughts on “Sacred Harp Singing Leeds

  1. Hi Jess – I’m Lin from Newcastle who was singing with you on Saturday, this is such a beautiful description of the day, especially of the alto experience. Looking forward to singing with you again!

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