Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

'Heartstrings' Music; Hilliard: Sacred Harp Singing Is an Act of Community -- Not Performance

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

'Heartstrings' Music; Hilliard: Sacred Harp Singing Is an Act of Community -- Not Performance

Article excerpt

Byline: Amelia A. Hart, Nassau Neighbors staff writer

Tolliver Lee paced within a small square, each footstep and wave of his hand marking time for the singers who encased him with walls of plaintive harmony.

Lee was taking his turn leading the monthly Sacred Harp sing held at the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville Retreat in Hilliard.

Sacred Harp, or shape note, singing goes back generations in Lee's family, and its roots run deep in the rural South.

The a cappella tradition is kept alive by people who gather to sing from The Sacred Harp, a songbook originally published in 1844.

The Hilliard group has been meeting for a little more than a year, first at a Hilliard church, then Hilliard Elementary School, and now at the First Baptist retreat. Saturday's gathering not only drew people from Nassau County, but also from Orange Park and Savannah, Ga.

"It's the type of music that if you like it, you'll travel for it," Ramona Lee of Hilliard said.

What sets Sacred Harp apart, say enthusiasts, is its emphasis on participation. Sings are acts of community, not performance.

The singers sit in a hollow square facing each other so the sound is directed toward the center. Each of the four parts -- bass, treble, alto and tenor -- sit on one side, and the pitch for each part is given before each song.

Anyone can lead a song, and one person "keeps the minutes" of who has led and what songs they've chosen.

The best seat in the house for Sacred Harp is in the square. The air practically vibrates with sound, and even as the four parts blend together in a powerful whole, each part still can be heard distinctly.

There is a stark majesty to Sacred Harp singing, but it can hit the modern ear a little harshly, participants say.

"It's not really pretty, like choral music is pretty," said David Lee, who leads the Sacred Harp sing in Hoboken, Ga., the oldest continuous sing community in America. "It's pretty raw, but it reaches down inside you like nothing else."

Sacred Harp/shape note singing is the very definition of "old-timey" music, both in sound and sentiment.

Shape note singing in America dates back to the colonial days, when the English "singing school" tradition was brought to this country.

The name comes from the distinct shapes -- triangle, circle, square and diamond -- used for the heads of notes in the printed music. The shapes were devised as a way to make sight reading easier, and they correspond to the four musical syllables used -- fa, sol, la, mi.

The shapes make it easy for even beginners to start singing along quickly, Tolliver Lee said.

"It's just like climbing a ladder," he said.

The Sacred Harp was published in 1844 by B.F. White and E.J. King, and is the primary songbook used in shape note singing. Although the book has been revised over the years with new songs written in a similar style, most of the songs date back hundreds of years, some as far back as 1550. …

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