The small group of Sacred Harp singers in Bremen sit once a week in the basement of a dark church. There, they sing old American tunes, strong hymns and strident, almost wailing, songs about salvation and burning skies. The square, about 18 people in all, are huddled closely, heads bent downwards to follow the shapes on the pages. The noise–well, it is a hard sound to describe, fierce and, in rare lucky instances, breathtaking.
The overall effect is something incomprehensible, and loud, and overwhelming–as the Bremen group describes it on their website, “a cappella Heavy Metal”.
What is Sacred Harp? Born out of English plain tunes of the 17th and 18th century that were popular in early New England, and deeply rooted in the participatory music-based worship of the South, Sacred Harp is a singing tradition that is unique to North America. To journey back through the story of Sacred Harp is to encounter some of the strangest figures in North American history–such as William Miller, who stirred up public hysteria in 1844 by announcing his discovery of a doomsday prophecy, only to be disappointed on the day the world should have ended–or Lorenzo Dow, the mad-eyed itinerant preacher who once got a confession out of a guilty thief by pretending to throw a rock at his head in the middle of a sermon.
Today, regional Sacred Harp ‘singings’ are not difficult to find across the United States, although they are not exactly well-known. Usually a ‘singing’ will last about two hours, with semi-annual all-day events including a potluck, “dinner on the ground”. As a lifelong ensemble singer, I have yet to find a way of singing that is more true to the spirit of music-making than Sacred Harp, because there is no audience, no performance. The chairs face into the middle of a square with each voice part on a side–self-enclosed and inclusive. No quality of voice is required, nor even knowledge of how to read music–the tunes are written in shapes, so as to make learning easier, and the initial verse is always sung in solfegge syllables of fa, sol, la.
The experience is somewhat cultish and certainly intense. But there is an undeniable beauty, not only in the music itself, but also in the group of people who have come together to sing–not for an audience or even for a director, but for themselves and each other.
I should mention that, although it stems from a Christian singing tradition and often takes place in local church sanctuaries or basements, a singing is not a religious gathering. These are songs about promises, storms, death, deep human fears and joys. Although these texts are certainly fire-and-brimstone levels of devout, I have never met anyone who minded–in fact, many singers are often amused by the heavy-handed imagery. And the texts are also in many ways astonishingly beautiful and universal. See 47b (Idumea): “For am I born to die, to lay this body down, and must my trembling spirit go into the world unknown?” or 410t (The Dying Californian): “Lay up nearer, brother, nearer, for my limbs are growing cold…”
As a newcomer to Hamburg, I’ve been trying hard these past few weeks to find somewhere that feels like home, and although the Bremen Sacred Harp community probably isn’t that place, I was still comforted by its familiarity. English words feel light, easy in the back of my tongue. In German I stutter and mumble, often lost. To sing in English was refreshing after a long day of speaking with hand gestures and articulating my thoughts on the level of a six-year-old. And so I came to the Bremen singing with perhaps a bit more enthusiasm (and background knowledge) than the average visitor. But I don’t think it matters, in the end.
In the last fifteen years, Sacred Harp singings have become more and more common on this side of the Atlantic. Strange, that this truly North American tradition has found such a new life here in Europe. Strange, but unsurprising, given Sacred Harp’s joyful, raucous energy and inclusive spirit. Home and community might take time to find, but there are some shortcuts I have learned, and one of the best is making music with other humans. Language falls away in the face of a strong tune and a moment of real connection. As they advertise on the fliers that were handed to me as I left, the singers in Bremen “make a joyful noise”.
Thursdays at 8pm, Wilhelm-Raabe-Str. 1, Bremen
For more information see:
Lucia was listening to Sam Amidon – How Come That Blood and Throwing Muses – Ellen West while writing this article.