Preserving the Sacred Harp Singing Tradition

Tunebooks, Shaped Notes and Full-Body Harmonies in Alabama

Coy Ivey leads song

hide captionDespite his hearing loss, Coy Ivey leads the song "Panting for Heaven" at the Mount Pleasant Home Primitive Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News

Sacred Harp Music

Hear full-length cuts of songs, recorded live:

Recorded at Liberty Baptist Church in Henagar, Ala.:

Listen 'The Promised Land'

Listen 'Northfield'

Recorded at Mount Pleasant Home Primitive Baptist Church in Fultondale, Ala.:

Listen 'The Child of Grace'

Listen 'I'm Going Home'
Rodney Ivey

hide captionCoy Ivey's son Rodney Ivey leads a Sacred Harp tune.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News

Liberty Baptist Church, in the northeast Alabama town of Henagar, has cradled the sound of Sacred Harp singing for 110 years.

There's no harp in Sacred Harp singing — no instruments at all. Just the power of voice, in four-part harmony. The origin of the music goes back centuries — first in England, then in colonial New England, then the music migrated south, where it took root.

NPR's Melissa Block reports on the enduring appeal of Sacred Harp singing and the people who keep the tradition alive.

"As far back as little bitty kids, we sang this in church all the time," says 69-year-old farmer Coy Ivey. "It's all we ever used at the church."

The songs come from a tunebook first published in 1844, and use a system of printed shapes, instead of standard music notation, to help untrained singers learn how to read the music.

Sacred Harp singing isn't at all like the soaring tones of traditional gospel music. "Sacred Harp is a whole other thing," Block says. "This is full-body, shout-it-out singing. The harmonies are stark and haunting — raw, even. In Sacred Harp, you don't want a sweet sound."

Block followed the Ivey family to Mount Pleasant Home Primitive Baptist Church in Birmingham for the Alabama State Sacred Harp Singing Convention — two full and exhausting days of Sacred Harp singing, which always includes a bountiful meal at noon called "dinner on the grounds."

Singers may go through almost 100 songs before the day is over. There's no audience — this music is just for themselves. "The room vibrates with sound. It rises up into your feet, pulses through the floor. You can feel it buzzing through the tunebook in your hands," Block says.

Singer Buell Cobb says the power of the gathered voices is so strong, it feels like a solid force. "It almost seemed you could stand up and walk on it."

The Sacred Harp tradition draws singers from all over the United States. People from as far away as Chicago, Seattle and Massachusetts gather in Alabama to take part in the singing convention.

Sacred Harp singing is also getting new voice — in Hollywood. The upcoming Civil War-era film Cold Mountain includes Sacred Harp music, recorded at Liberty Baptist Church. There are plans for a Sacred Harp CD to go along with the movie.

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