It was near St. Patrick’s Day. I typed “Irish sacred music” in the search engine. And I discovered Cork Sacred Harp. My husband Curt was on medical leave and we sat entranced for hours watching videos on YouTube. And now it’s become a daily habit to listen and sing along to our favorites a capella singing from Ireland.
In 2012 we rented this DVD about Sacred Harp singing from Netflix. The quote in the photo above says, “features some of the most raucous group vocals that have been recorded.” True, that. The music in the movie is primitive, unrefined, at times jarring. It is intense, heartfelt, loud. We found ourselves simultaneously compelled and repelled. And so intrigued that I bought the DVD. What is shape note singing? See this article. The shapes correspond with fa-sol-la-mi; the first swipe through a song the singers use these syllables. With several parts singing different notes, it may sound like random mish-mash to begin with.
Listen: The music is often fugal. This means that there are the melody lines enter in a staggered fashion, braiding tunes until all parts sing together. Here’s a good example, a hymn tune we regularly sing to a different text:
Why has this music captured me? I think it is the clean—yes, even sharp—edges of rhythm. It’s that the majority of the songs are in minor keys. It’s the full sound of people singing with gusto. If I had a gun to my head and had to say my favorite hymn (a funny thought experiment) I would say Come Thou Fount. Here it is to the tune I Will Rise.
I don’t like every one of the videos listed under CorkSacredHarp, but I’ve “liked” my favorites and then watch that “liked” playlist daily. I don’t get weary of them. Here is a list of my favorites. The title is name of the tune.
146 Hallelujah – might be the best known Sacred Harp song
63 Coronation – All Hail the Power. The frail woman in the inner square: priceless
30t Love Divine – Tollie Lee is the most lively, engaging leader
350 Nativity – Another example of fugal singing, one we love to sing at my church
128 Promised Land – I love Shirley! I am bound for the Promised Land.
45t New Britain – Amazing Grace done Sacred Harp style
569b Sacred Throne – I grew up singing this tune to Alas, and did my Savior bleed?
59 Holy Manna – Eimear and Sadhbh are my favorites. The song, too.
547 Granville – This gripping lament was written in 1986 by Judy Hauff
344 Rainbow – We sing this “as is” except for the solfege at the beginning.
148 Jefferson – You will never hear Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken the same again 457 Wayfaring Stranger – Another familiar song with glorious harmony
117 Babylon Is Fallen – Oh. my. I wake up with this song on my lips.
448b The Grieved Soul – What is that that casts thee down? A song for depression.
I suspect that 95% of my dear readers will not enjoy, explore, pursue this music; there is no accounting for taste. But I know there are a few of you who will become as fixated as I have become. You will lose of day of productivity soaking this music into your system. Someone said Sacred Harp is a capella Heavy Metal. (I copied it from a website in German!) This metal is embedded in me.