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Every second Tuesday of the month a strange sound fills the basement of Heath Street Baptist Church. It’s loud, powerful, and raw. It’s Sacred Harp. Sacred Harp is an old tradition of community singing, which stems from the US and which has been around since before the US Civil War. The music is always sung unaccompanied, in four parts, with all singers seated in a ‘hollow’ square.
Sacred Harp is a form of shapenote singing. Shapenotes are a musical notation system designed to make sight-reading music easier for new singers. In the case of Sacred Harp four syllables are used to signify the seven notes on the scale and the intervals between them. Each of the syllables is represented by a distinctive shape: a triangle for fa , an oval for sol ,arectanglefor la, and a diamond for mi. While there are many songbooks using the shapenote system, the Sacred Harp (Denson edition) is by far the most widely used book, and the book London Sacred Harp primarily sing from.
The beauty of singing Sacred Harp lies in its inherently participatory and democratic nature. There are no auditions, no rehearsals, no performances. We sing for ourselves and each other. There is no group leader or hierarchy, but at singings each singer has a chance to select a song for the group to sing and to lead it from the centre of the square, where the four harmonies come together. Singers can choose to return to old favourites or to explore the over 500 songs in the book.
While Sacred Harp singing in the American South has been - and still is - a religious practice, it has always been an open and welcoming one. In the Northern States and Europe the practice has moved beyond the religious, although for many singers it can still be a spiritual experience. What still typifies Sacred Harp, however, is the strong sense of community among its singers across the world. Never is this more clear than at all-day singing, hosted annually by local groups, which centre on a shared “dinner on the grounds”. Something we cannot recreate at our monthly Hampstead sing, but we do enjoy our tea breaks and post-singing pint together! For many singers it is the music which draws them in, but it is the people to sing it with that keep them coming back.
If you would like to give Sacred Harp singing a go, or if you would like to come by for a listen, please do come and join us at Heath Street Baptist Church on the second Tuesday of each month and on various other locations in the capital. For full details, please see our website londonsacredharp.org. As much of the joy in Sacred Harp comes from singing, we strongly encourage you to join in and we are always happy to give a brief introduction to the shapenote system to new listeners. We hope to see you soon!