Sacred Harp Singing Survives

For a few loyal singers this music is a way of life.

WARNER ROBINS, Ga. (AP) - For more than a century, Sacred Harp singing was one of the most popular forms of music in churches throughout the rural South.

Over the past 30 years, the music - which features several standing vocalists taking turns leading the group from the center - has practically disappeared. It's kept alive by small but loyal groups who love the music.

``It's a way of life,'' said Raymond Hamrick, 84. ``Like any music, it tends to take you out of your everyday problems. You're with friends. There are people over the country that go every week. They sing the same songs, but they still get the same charge out of it they did 10 years ago.''

The vocalists sing without any accompanying instruments - not even a harp. Many of the singers say that the human voice is ``The Sacred Harp,'' which was also the title of a popular songbook published in Georgia in 1844.

Now Sacred Harp singing is attracting a new following on college campuses and in urban areas.

``We always look for a rebirth,'' said Hamrick, a singer and composer, after a ``singing'' at the Pilgrim's Rest Primitive Baptist Church near Warner Robins. ``Maybe it'll skip a generation and then the young ones will get interested again.''

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Sacred Harp is both a social and a musical event. The emphasis is on participation, not performing. Participants refer to their gatherings as ``singings'' or ``classes.''

The songs, many of them composed during the late 1700s and early 1800s, have religious themes. Sacred Harp music is arranged in four parts: bass, tenor, alto and a melody line known as treble. Men sing bass, women sing alto and both sing tenor and treble, providing six-voice harmonies.

Sacred Harp is written with shaped notes that originated in England in the 1600s. The note heads, representing mi-fa-sol-la of the musical scale, have distinctive geometrical shapes that were devised to facilitate sight reading.

The 20 singers gathered at Pilgrim's Rest included people from all walks of life. They started at about 10:30 a.m. and took a break at noon to feast on covered dishes. After lunch, they sang for another 90 minutes before heading home.

``It's better than going to church,'' said Wesley Haley, 48, of Jackson, who has been singing for 12 years. He was there with his wife, Rita, and teen-age son, Timothy. Two daughters also sing. ``Sometimes you get into a spiritual mood that raises the hair on the back of your neck.''

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