Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp

By Resta, Craig | Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp


Resta, Craig, Journal of Historical Research in Music Education


Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp. DVD. Directed by Matt and Erica Hinton. Awake Productions, 2006. ASIN: B0016CXXC8, $25.

The story of singing is integrally associated with the story of music education; our first foundations of music teaching and learning in America were based on singing schools in churches and communities. These schools provided the core principles of how music was considered, learned, and passed through generations, both young and old. The music sung was not primarily of European convention, but one rough-hewn and connected with the rugged landscape of the American experience during the nation's first 200 years.

Filmmakers Matthew and Erica Hinton have ably presented the story of this important tradition in their documentary Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp. The film, released in 2006, was broadcast on several PBS stations throughout the South and elsewhere. Based on seven years of field research, the filmmakers collected nearly 200 hours of footage reflecting their experiences in rural churches in Georgia, Alabama, and other parts of the South. The directors weave the account of the music and its history through the lives and narratives of several practitioners of the craft, creating a compelling and engaging story of sacred harp singing in America.

The film moves from theme to theme through these personal experiences, and contains history, singing, interviews, images, and commentary. Included in this thematic presentation are portrayals of early American singing schools, descriptions of shape-note singing and how it is understood and sung, an overview of its practice both past and present, discussion of the audiences involved with this type of singing, the individual stories of the participants, and generous samples of engaged, hearty singing. The various segments move seamlessly, and one slowly understands each of the individuals represented in the film, providing a personal connection to their musical journeys through sacred harp singing.

As music education historians readily know, the story of the early singing schools began in the North and eventually migrated South where it has resided for the past 150 years. Figures such as William Billings, Lowell Mason, B.F. White, William Walker, Jeremiah Ingalls, William Smith, E.J. King, and others are mentioned as early composers, leaders, and educators in the early American music education and shape-note singing movement. There is also a brief overview of the connection between music of Europe and the Middle Ages, and this now traditional American art form of the Sacred Harp.

This information is presented through various perspectives: singing practitioners, professional shape note singers, and a music professor and historian of shape note singing. Jim Lauderdale, a country music singer and songwriter, narrates the film. It is carefully researched with ethnographic, historical, and oral history methods and has been created, edited, and marketed with nearly the entire cast and production crew dedicated to this lesser-known musical art.

Once the history of sacred harp singing is explained, time is devoted to the process of singing as it occurred historically and remains to this day. Often during a sacred harp sing, as many 100 tunes are sung in one day, with many of the members taking turns as leader. The leader stands in the center-square, or hollow, in the middle of the church, while the pews surround this center in a larger square. …

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