BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The
archaic sounds that fill the historic former church sanctuary echo, hauntingly,
like a whispering ghost from the past.
Inside the 1902 building
that once housed the Second Presbyterian Church, the elaborate archways bounce
back the sound of sacred harp singing.
It’s a style of music that
once dominated rural evangelical religion, in the days before the Civil War and
church organs, when a capella singing was the norm. It’s never entirely died
out, in part because of people like Tim Cook.
“It was once common
throughout the South,” said Cook, a shape-note singing aficionado who brought
his lessons to the former church that’s now part of the University of Alabama
at Birmingham campus.
Cook’s group of more than a
dozen interested singers sat facing Cook as the song leader, holding wide-page
hymnbooks filled with notes in the shapes of open and solid squares, diamonds,
triangles and ovals.
Throughout the 1800s, the
mournful harmonious sounds of a capella shape-note singing reverberated in
churches throughout the South. It’s now experiencing a renaissance of sorts in
Sacred Harp songbooks and conventions. But while Sacred Harp singing has
surged, the slightly more complicated seven-shape-note Alabama Christian
Harmony singing still struggles to stay alive.
“We certainly don’t want it
to die out,” said Emily Creel Burleson, Ala., who carries on her family’s
generations-long love affair with the music. “We do it to promote the heritage
and tradition of the music.”
The Internet has helped
create a revival for shape-note singing, connecting singers and bringing them
together for events across the country.
Cook says having the notes
in different shapes makes it easier to read and sing the music in four-part
Participants sing the actual
note sounds first: “fa” for triangle shape notes, “sol” for oval, “la” for
square and “mi” for diamond-shape notes, instead of the lyrics. That’s just a
tradition. Then they sing it with the lyrics.
The combination of archaic harmonies
and old-style lyrics can be jolting to outsiders. To others, it’s addictive.
Many of the shape-note songs were written by English composers such as Isaac
Watts and Charles Wesley, set to old English dance tunes and carried from
churches in rural England by colonial settlers.
The tradition was carried to
the South, where many churches continued the shape-note a capella singing of
the hymns with complex harmonies. The songs may have archaic, cryptic names
such as “Old Hundred,” better known in many hymnbooks as the doxology; “Amazing
Grace” appears in shape-note books as “New Britain.”
When pianos and organs
became common in churches, a capella singing began to disappear, along with the
complicated harmonies in the old hymnbooks.
Cook took up shape-note
singing after moving from Michigan to Atlanta in 1995, and now teaches it and
“I’ve always like to sing a
capella, four-part harmony,” Cook said. “When I heard this the first time, I
‘That is the voice of heaven.’”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Garrison
writes for The Birmingham News in Birmingham, Ala.)