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The Sacred Harp Singing Community Perseveres During Pandemic

People singing
A sacred harp singer leads the group at The Great Falls Grange for the 23rd annual Potomac River Sacred Harp Singing Convention on March 31, 2012. Conventions draw singers from across the region and from abroad. (Photo: Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities)

Shape note singing has deep roots in Appalachia and the American south. Popular first in 18th and 19th-century New England, shape note singing is a tradition that relies on group participation. But what happens when groups can’t get together and sing?

“One of the beautiful things about shape note singing is it has a capacity to hold the full range of human emotion ... it feels especially cruel that we can’t sing together now.”

- Chris Wolf

“One of the beautiful things about shape note singing is it has a capacity to hold the full range of human emotion,” said Chris Wolf, a teacher and singer from Floyd County, Virginia. “And it’s often a balm in trying times. So it feels especially cruel that we can’t sing together now.” 

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, shape note singers—who regularly gather indoors, in groups—are practicing social distancing. Preventing the spread of COVID-19 means avoiding singing with a large group of people in an enclosed room.

What Is Shape Note Singing?

Shape note singing, also known as sacred harp, is an early American a cappella religious singing tradition that depends on four-part harmony. 

“The vocal style is unadorned and unpolished,” Wolf said. “The harmonic qualities of the music are striking, there’s a lot of resonant chords that sound old.”

Singers regularly gather in their home communities for what are traditionally known as “singing schools”—opportunities for beginners to learn the singing methods and for long-time singers to practice. They also gather for annual all-day “singing conventions,” which can draw more than 100 people, some from other states and abroad, for a potluck dinner and a day of singing from tunebooks like The Sacred Harp and The Shenandoah Harmony. 

“You really see people shouting with joy and in the full experience of their grief, and in the joy of being together in community,” Wolf said. “The tradition is like a sturdy enough structure that we can actually let go for a second and let our inner experience happen.”

Shape note singing is not performance; under normal circumstances, singers only sing for each other. That’s apparent in the setup of the room. Singers stand in a square, facing each other. 

Now that the coronavirus pandemic is keeping singers at a distance, some singers are finding other ways to connect with their community and practice.

Socially Distant Singing

Tim Morton, who has practiced shape note singing for more than a decade, used his skills as a filmmaker to help record a virtual shape note singing session. He and his friends invited anyone who practices sacred harp to individually record themselves singing the harmony part of a designated tune and email him that recording. Tim combined the parts, which together approximate a kind of chorus, and uploaded the finished product to YouTube.

More than 150 people from 28 states and 13 countries submitted videos of themselves singing harmony parts on the popular tune “Hallelujah.” Morton said the words of that tune, which were written in 1759, feel especially meaningful during this time. One of the verses he cites:

“Give joy or grief, give ease or pain,
Take life or friends away,
But let me find them all again,
In that eternal day.”

- Part of "Halleluja"

The video has gone viral, with more than 32,000 views as of this posting. Morton said he didn’t expect it to resonate with so many people.

“It felt like the experience people had by watching it seemed under these circumstances something that people were needing at that moment,” Morton said. 

Despite its reach, Morton said the video is just a novelty project;  virtual singing just can’t replace the experience of singing with a group of people in person. 

Two Person Harmony

Wolf is married to Roxanne Greenberg, and the two are both part of a singing community in the nearby town of Floyd, Virginia. With in-person gatherings on hold, they’ve been singing together. Although it’s not quite the same as the larger events they’re used to, Greenberg said it's given them the opportunity to relax during stressful times.

“Just being able to sing a song for a minute and a half to two minutes, that does create some openness and some spaciousness and some rest,” Greenberg said. She and Wolf are both teachers, a job that became busier in the spring after classes moved online. 

In 2015, Greenberg and Wolf were the first two singers in what eventually became a small group that met twice a month in Floyd. Greenberg said there’s an intimacy that comes with singing with people and learning their stories month after month.

“People like Chris and myself, you know, people who live together, or people who are coupled—they can still sing together,” Greenberg said. “And we have folks that we sing with who live alone, and so I wonder how it might feel different for them.”

Greenberg said their group has attracted all sorts of curious newcomers. “Sometimes it’s someone from an older generation who says, ‘Oh, I had a family member that used to do this,’ or ‘I remember my dad or my mom or my uncle doing it when I was younger, and I just wanted to hear it again.’”

With cases of COVID-19 rising nationally, it’s unclear how sacred harp singing communities in Appalachia will fare. Wolf said it’s unlikely the tradition itself will suffer, but that for now, what is suffering is a socially distanced community. 

This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council . The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture. 

Kelley Libby is interim features editor at VPM News. She has worked in public radio in Virginia for more than a decade.
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