The Sacred Harp

group singing church hymns at Sacred Harp

Written by Pastor Doug, University Baptist Church

It’s Tuesday evening. You’ve had a hard day and you’re grabbing a jolt of caffeine from the Purple Onion. Before putting your ear buds back in, you hear something odd. Soaring harmonies, plaintive wails. Is it live or a recording? The lights are on and the windows are open on the third floor of that little church across the street.

You get a little closer, crossing the last lawn in Dinkytown and you realize it’s live. And it’s passionate. And it’s not, how shall we say, “pretty” like old church music. It’s raw and it’s haunting. You venture inside, following the music to the top floor. And you see about 30 people facing each other in a tight square singing at the top of their lungs. You thought there were going to be twice as many given the volume. They don’t have a director. They don’t have an audience. The sound is bouncing across the room. Someone hands you a book and says “join us.” You hesitate. You want to flee, but there is some force pulling you in. The group has people your age and people who were your age decades ago. You have entered Shape-Note-Land. You look at the red oblong book. The title is “The Sacred Harp.”

Someone calls out a number and you try to follow along. You turn to the page and see the four parts of music and weird shapes instead of circles for the notes. You find an open old folding chair in the tenor section. The person who handed you the book says that it’s the melody. You realize that it’s also closest to the door. Someone sings a triad.  Fa-La-Sol-Fa. The rest of the group sings along and you’re off to the races. Turns out you have to sing on the shapes first before you get to the words. You muddle through and the person next to you says, just sing La until you catch on. The first time through you get a semblance of the tune. When the words come the next time around it’s little easier. You consider fleeing, but without a breath, someone calls another number and you’re off again. Before you know it, your solar plexus is vibrating. You can’t hear yourself sing because the volume is so loud. That means that no one cares if you sing a wrong note. The group takes a break, makes announcements, and takes a $1-if-you-got-it offering. You learn that while it’s in a church and you’re singing hymns, it’s not affiliated with the church. Your learn that people have been singing this style of music in the U.S. for over two centuries and in the Twin Cities for 40 years. There are no theological litmus tests, no auditions, no performances, and no real leadership, just a group of people who love to sing. You drink down the last of now cold your coffee, but for some reason the ear buds stay stashed away. You’ve got something else on your mind.

Sacred Harp singing happens every Tuesday evening from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at University Baptist Church, across the street from the Purple Onion in Dinkytown.

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