Sacred Harp Music

By: Francis Edward Abernethy

Type: Overview Entry

Published: January 1, 1996

Updated: February 10, 2021

Sacred harp music is a religious folk music named for Benjamin Franklin White's The Sacred Harp (1844). Its old time White spirituals are sung a cappella; the "sacred harp" is the human voice singing hymns to God. Sacred harp music, maintained primarily by religious fundamentalists, is sometimes called "fasola" music because of the names of its shape notes. Sacred harp singing and its subsequent movement in America had beginnings in seventeenth-century England through the efforts by music publisher and vicar choral John Playford to teach note-reading to London parish clerks. The singing-school movement in England resulted in renewed interest in psalmody, and local singing-masters established choirs throughout the country.

American sacred harp music had its beginnings in the late eighteenth century. In America, the earliest songbooks borrowed their repertoire and methods from Playford's method books and psalters. The frontier preachers in the Southern Highlands and the Deep South, however, found themselves with large congregations that wanted to sing praises to God but lacked music. As Charles Wesley said, "The devil had all the good tunes." The frontier preachers therefore took old ballads of the English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh folk songs that had been a part of their culture for generations and put religious words to them. "The Ballad of Captain Kidd" became "Wondrous Love," and the Scottish air we call "Auld Lang Syne" became the tune of "Hark! From the Tombs."

A simpler type of religious song that was later incorporated into sacred harp was the camp-meeting song. This was a substitution song of one or two lines that was based on repetition. For instance, in a song with the unlikely title of "Cuba," the line "Go, preachers, tell it to the world" is repeated three times and then tagged with a final line, "Poor mourners found a home at last." The chorus is "Thro' free grace and a dying lamb," a line repeated three times and followed by "Poor mourners found a home at last." The song could be sung as long as the leader could think up substitutes for "preachers": "Christians," "Baptists," "brothers," and so forth.

Another influence on the development of sacred harp music was the singing school, a tradition that began in the eastern states in the 1770s and was still popular among the people of the South during the Second Great Revival of the early 1800s, which entered Texas with Alabama and Georgia settlers in the mid-nineteenth century. All that a singing-school master had to have to start a school was a fair voice, a tuning fork, and some made simple books. The book that had the greatest effect on sacred harp singing was Easy Instructor, or A New Method of Teaching Sacred Harmony, published by William Little and William Smith in 1801. The new method was the use of shape notes: a right triangle for fa, a circle for sol, a square for la, and a diamond for mi.

The singing master always led his pupils through the song first by singing the note names for the seven note scale, which went back to pre-Elizabethan England (the full scale was fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, fa). When the pupils had the notation well in hand, they sang the words. This practice continues in present-day sacred harp singing. The singing master's other contribution to sacred harp music was the composition of songs, mainly "fuguing" ("fleeing") songs. These were popular in England more than 300 years ago and later in singing schools of the American colonies; their melodic lines were based on traditional rounds, each singing part beginning and repeating a set phrase at a different time, and all parts concluding together.

In 1844 B. F. White published his collection of revival songs, hymns, spirituals, and fuguing songs in a longways book titled The Sacred Harp. The book was notated in Little and Smith's shape notes, with each song divided into three or four singing parts, singing school style. The Sacred Harp became the favorite hymn book for Southern fundamentalists and gave fasola music its name.

Sacred harp singings traditionally were (in some places, still are) a part of a community's homecoming celebration, of which the church and religion were major parts. At an all-day singing the main body of singers sits in blocks two or three deep and forms a hollow square, with the leader in the middle. Tenors sit at the south of the square and sing the melodies with the audience sitting and singing behind them. Across from the tenors are the altos. The basses sit in the west across from the sopranos, or trebles. The groups sing a cappella, with neither piano nor organ to trouble the sound of their harmonies. The secretary of the singing calls individual singers to lead their two songs. The leader, standing in the middle of the square, announces his first song by page number and top or lower "brace," if two songs happen to be on the same page. The "pitcher" or "keyer," usually among the tenors, sings the first note of all the parts, trying to pitch the song within the range of the singers. Pitch is relative, not absolute, so if the notes are too high, someone will probably remark that it is "sharp"; if it is too low, it is "flat." When the pitch is agreed upon, the singing begins. Faithful to the old singing-school tradition, the singers begin by singing the notes of their parts. When they have finished the solmizing, they move directly into the words of the song and never miss a beat. Sacred harp singing is strong and personal and purposeful, and the singers are singing for themselves and for the joy of the sounds they are making. They saw the air with their hands and pound out the beat with their fists, and the music is grand to hear.

The sacred harp sound is more than 200 years old, much of it, and it differs from modern church music with its doleful minor chords and unusual harmonic patterns. Sacred harp songs emphasize the tonic and dominant chords while neglecting the subdominant and nearly all other ones. Many of them feature pentatonic melodies in minor keys. The songs were written during the hard times of the frontier, and their content often is a reminder that suffering is a natural and an endurable part of life. And, of course, they carry the message that when this difficult life is done there will be the life with God hereafter.

All-day singings usually begin at ten o'clock, although conventions might start earlier and last longer. The morning session has a ten-minute break at eleven o'clock and ends at noon. The women begin drifting out of the church before noon to get dinner spread. After dinner, singing resumes at one o'clock and lasts till three or later, with a two o'clock break. Memorial songs are sung toward the end of the day in remembrance of those singers who have gone on to the heavenly choir. At the end of the singing, announcements of future singings are made and invitations are extended. Unspoken agreements exist among the singers to reciprocate attendance at each other's singings. A National Sacred Harp Convention is held annually in the summer in Birmingham, Alabama. It is sponsored by the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, which still publishes B. F. White's The Sacred Harp, revised in the twentieth century by W. M. Cooper and others.

Although sacred harp all-day singings and dinner on the grounds, once held in almost every rural community in East and Central Texas, are not as widespread as before World War II, a number of annual singings are still held. The two that in the 2000s had the longest existence and largest meetings were the Southwest Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention (also known simply as the Southwest Texas Convention), held at Bethel Primitive Baptist Church in McMahan on the first fifth Sunday in the spring, and the East Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention (East Texas Convention) in Henderson, organized in 1855 and held on the weekend of the second Sunday in August. The Henderson convention, which was originally organized as the East Texas Musical Convention, is the oldest known active singing convention in Texas and the second oldest in the United States. A newer gathering, the Texas State Convention held each February in College Station and, in recent years, in San Antonio, began in 1993. Across Texas, sacred harp singing showed signs of strengthening interest. In 2015, for example, some fifteen singing events, many of them annual affairs, took place throughout the state. Not just limited to rural regions, sacred harp singing also occurred in the major metropolitan areas of Houston, San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas-Fort Worth.

Francis Edward Abernethy, Singin' Texas (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1994). Dallas Morning News, April 15, 1996. Kathryn Eastburn, "The Sacred Harp Singing Tradition Thrives in Texas," Texas Highways, March 2004. Lisa Carol Hardaway, Sacred Harp Traditions in Texas (M.A. thesis, Rice University, 1989). George Pullen Jackson, The Story of the Sacred Harp: 1844–1944 (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1944). George Pullen Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933). Sacred Harp Singing FAQ (, accessed August 23, 2015. Sacred Harp Singing in Texas (, accessed August 23, 2015. "Shape-note Hymnody," "Spiritual," The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Sadie Stanley (Washington: Macmillan, 1980). Benjamin Franklin White, The B. F. White Sacred Harp (12th ed., Troy, Alabama: Sacred Harp Book Company, 1988).

  • Music
  • Religion

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January 1, 1996
February 10, 2021

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