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.''

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.''

Also among the singers were three sisters - Rose Watson of Yatesville and Mary Brownlee and Martha Harrell, both of Barnesville.

``We came up with it,'' said Watson, a Macon bookkeeper. ``It's just part of our life. We didn't have TV or radio for entertainment. We got out the Sacred Harp book and sang.''

``Our earliest memories, before we sang, was hearing our mother and aunts singing on the front porch,'' said Brownlee.

The original Sacred Harp songbook was published in 1844 by Benjamin F. White and E.J. King. The latest version of the book is published by the Sacred Harp Publishing Co. in the west Georgia town of Bremen.

``One-hundred-and-sixty years ago, we were in the rural South,'' said Hugh McGraw, 69, the company's secretary for 50 years. ``There was farming going on. Papa and Mama had eight to 10 kids. They went to singing schools. They went to singings on Sunday. That's played out now. There's no rural South anymore. Everybody had to move to town to make their livelihood.''

McGraw said the company has sold about 90,000 song books over the past 30 years, some to customers in Europe and Australia.

``The older people are keeping it alive, but in these new towns like Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle, it's the younger people who are doing it,'' said McGraw. The song book features nine of his songs and six of Hamrick's.

Twenty-three states host Sacred Harp conventions.

``Anything that divides people, you leave at the door of a singing, whether you're a Baptist, Methodist, Catholic or atheist, and there are plenty of all of those at singings today, especially outside the South,'' said Warren Steel, an assistant professor of music and Southern culture at the University of Mississippi.

Steel, a singer and authority on the art, is encouraged by the growth outside the South, but wonders whether that will be enough to sustain it.

``In places like central Georgia, it's practically disappeared. Those are the people who have generations of singers and association. They're the ones who really carried the tradition,'' he said. ``The interest outside the South and in urbanized and college towns is certainly there, but it remains to be seen how pervasive it will be and whether it can be passed along.'' Copyright 2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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