By Simon Phillips
These recordings, made by Alan Lomax at the Sacred Harp Convention in a church in Fyffe Alabama in 1959, were his first attempt to record this rather astounding choral singing in stereo, as he felt mono couldn’t do justice to the sound of all these voices singing in unison and harmony.
For those of you like me, who had never heard of Sacred Harp singing or Shape note singing, it is a form of Traditional Christian signing prevalent in the Southern American states, where they gather and sing from the Sacred Harp song book of some 573 four-part Folk Hymns. Someone shouts out a hymn number, everyone finds the hymn, and away they go, sight singing acapella with all sorts of four-part harmonies going on. It certainly grabs you after a while, and mainly it reminds me of the chain gang work songs that Alan Lomax recorded at Parchment Farm crossed with the big African gospel choirs. Only, of course, everyone involved in these recordings are white.
This seems to be a very particular kind of gospel singing, as when I mentioned I was reviewing this to one of my Christian friends, who listened to some of the music, she wondered if the singers were actually Christian, as this has nothing to do with the Hillsong movement or Jesus Culture she listens too. It certainly got me some interesting comments, as this is quite stirring stuff.
A lot of the songs have a real work song feel to them, whether they are singing of the “Last Words of Copernicus” or “Arbacoochie,” the voices work in a strange kind of unison that seems to have a repetitive build that almost feels like a marching pace. They also never hang about. All the songs are sung at a fair clip, making it hard to understand the words until you have heard them a good few times. Even well-known hymns like “New Jerusalem” or “Amazing Grace” are hard to follow at first, until you tune into what they are doing, and then they had me gripped. It sounded like I was sitting in the centre of the church, with a couple of hundred people singing these songs at me.
I’m sure attending a Sacred Harp Convention would be a truly powerful experience, and I’m sure they’d insist you took part. But to hear a selection of 17 of the over 200 songs from the book they sang over the course of the weekend Alan Lomax spent recording them in 1959 with his assistant Shirley Collins is a wonderful insight into a small culture that seems to sound like it has barely changed in hundreds of years.