Fans keep alive Sacred Harp choral music

Mon Jun 27, 2011 2:18pm EDT
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By Verna Gates

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - The sound defies mere singing, pulsing though the church sanctuary with sufficient force to put hell on alert.

For three days this month singers from the United States, Canada and Britain gathered to celebrate an Elizabethan-era form of sacred choral music that took root and is preserved in the American south.

Nearly 700 registered for the 32nd annual National Sacred Harp Convention, which maintains the tradition of the a cappella singing style in four-part harmony.

In the rural U.S. South Sacred Harp singing is a weekly occurrence in a string of family churches.

"We went to a small wooden church with people who had been singing together their whole lives and the sound was just wonderful," said Briton Judy Whiting, of her visit to Gum Pond, Alabama.

Whiting, who had traveled from her home in West Yorkshire, England for the event, was one of many international visitors.

Sacred Harp began in the singing schools in England in Elizabethan times. Participants sit in a square with a hollow center, facing each other, in groups separated by voice range.

In the 1800s, a written form of the choral style emerged in a "shape note" style of musical signature. The notes are shaped according to sound to help people who cannot read music to be able to quickly learn how to sing in key.   Continued...

<p>Rebecca Over from England, Mary Ellen Schrock, of New York and Tina Becker, from Knoxville, Tennessee, try out a new Sacred Harp composition this year. REUTERS/Handout</p>