The sound and the shape

Music without notes brings singers to 17th Potomac Convention

In the 19th century and earlier, much of life in the rural South revolved around the Grange Hall. Oft times simply a one-room meetinghouse, the Hall would host dances, performances and potluck dinners.

Grange Halls have by and large disappeared. For the most part, communities are so large and disparate that in some sense, they're not communities at all. Not to glorify the past or anything, but few things hearken back to a time when an entire community would gather in a room and just be together. These days that's nearly impossible.

But last Sunday at the Great Falls, Va., Grange Hall (est. 1928), the 17th annual Potomac River Sacred Harp Singing Convention rolled into town. Hosted in part by Baltimorean singer Carly Goss, the convention gathers singers from all over the country to sing music they love.

"Sacred Harp is more than making music together," said Goss, who's been singing for nine years. "It is a living, thriving expression of love and devotion to a community of people, and for many, it is the most raw, effective and powerful connection they can find with their spirit and that of their friends and family."

Sacred Harp singing is a traditional American form of singing developed in the 1700s. It incorporates elements of scotch-Irish music, traditional Christian hymns and contrapuntal fugues into short yet powerful a cappella songs. The songs emphasize harmony, and the effect of a large group singing together is a treat.

The music uses a special form of notation, meant to be understood by people who could not read music. It was invented around 1800 in the Northeast, according to Stephen Sabol, a singer at the Potomac River Convention and musical historian. The notes, in addition to being written on the staff, are different shapes, hence the generic title for the type of singing - "shape note" singing. After a pitch is set by the leader, the rest of the notes are easy to find if the singer knows the shapes and the intervals. For example, the four basic notes are as follows: fa (triangle), sol (oval), la (square) and me (diamond).

Sacred Harp refers to the most popular shape note hymnbook. First published in 1844, it gained popularity among rural folk in the Northeast and on down South, reaching its height of popularity in Alabama. Weekly or monthly sings at Grange Halls, usually accompanied by a potluck dinner, became regular events in some towns.

As for the Potomac River Convention, people come from as far as California and Texas for the chance to sing with as many as 60 or 70 other singers. The singers sit in one of four banks of benches or chairs, shaped in a square and facing in. Different banks of benches are for different vocal parts - tenor or melody, bass, alto and soprano. Men or women can sing any part. Standing in the middle of the square is a leader who conducts the singers and keeps everything together. The leader changes with every song.

Recently, Sacred Harp is slowly experiencing somewhat of a resurgence in popularity. This is due in part to the rising popularity of folk music in general in the '50s and '60s, thanks to the efforts of Folkways records and musicologists like Harry Smith for finding and preserving recordings. But the music did survive in an organic way, passing from person to person through time. Goss and others host regular regional sings, and the Potomac River convention sees a rise in attendance every year. Regular sings in Baltimore, Berryville, Va., and elsewhere in the U.S. are going strong.

"In my community, the popularity of shape note music is increasing dramatically. There are so many new singers showing up all the time, learning what it's all about," Goss said. "My sing on Thursday nights began very small. We would have maybe five or six singers on a given night. This was not even two years ago. Recently we've had as many as 18 people."

The music also incites strong feelings and emotions in its singers. One remarkable story is of Amanda Denson, whose relatives penned and revised some Sacred Harp songs, who recently had a tracheotomy, making it impossible to sing or even speak. She led a few songs with help from friends, despite her disability, with tears streaming with love and thankfulness.

Sacred Harp is something to witness. It is more participation than performance - a way to experience true community.

Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle