Sacred Harp, the oldest surviving American musical genre, is making a comeback. Also known as shape-note singing because of its musical notation, Sacred Harp relies on powerful rhythm and strong harmonies to belt out some of America's favorite hymns, such as "Amazing Grace" and the compositions of Isaac Watts. Since the Civil War, however, Sacred Harp, a term referring to the human voice, has been largely relegated to the backwoods churches of the South. The documentary film Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp gives viewers a history, from its 17th-century Puritan beginnings to its contemporary resurgence.
European music masters and, after the Civil War, a modernizing, urbanizing South thought Sacred Harp backward and rustic. But its characteristic pounding has kept the music alive. This dvd displays the genre's overpowering volume. A grandfather of the modern revival says, "It is tone quality through volume that burns out the chaff." The lyrics are spirited and feisty. "Serve with a single heart and eye / and to thy glory live or die." "The dead's alive and the lost is found / Glory Hallelujah." Sacred Harp is a communal experience, not a performance. Participants gather for daylong singings, with plenty of food. They sit in a square and sing to God. And as this DVD shows, Sacred Harp is addicting. That's why I'm glad that a 30-track CD comes with the film.
Awake My Soul is available from Amazon.com and other retailers.
Time reported on the popularity of Sacred Harp singing among hipsters.
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