Singers Find Amazing Grace in Obscure Music Style
The Westside living room looks as uptown as any in Architectural Digest. But the joyous noise that fills it is straight out of a Southern Baptist church.
On a recent evening, a dozen Angelenos, including an engineer, a physician and the chief financial officer of a gay magazine, have gathered in a Culver City home. The panoramic view is of the glittering lights of nighttime Los Angeles, but it is the old-time music, not the postmodern view, that dominates the scene. Sitting in a square, the men and women sing out at the top of their lungs. The songs are not pretty, modulated melodies but austere, sometimes dissonant hymns about earthly torments and heavenly delights, sung by people who may or not believe in the words but are united in their love of the music.
Eddie Huckaby has fought the freeway all the way from Thousand Oaks to come here and sing about sin and death and eternal life. As he sits with the others, he occasionally moves one arm back and forth like a metronome. No piano or organ competes with the sound of the human voice, a collective voice that is more powerful than polished.
The singers sight-read from a book that features not the familiar notation of most choral music, but a system called shape note, which uses squares, triangles and diamonds as well as the usual ovals to represent the notes. The book, which includes the haunting hymn “Amazing Grace” (these singers know it by its original name, “New Britain”), is called the “Original Sacred Harp.” First published in 1844, it is immodestly described by its modern editors as “the best collection of sacred songs, hymns, odes and anthems ever offered the singing public for general use.”
The 50 members of the Los Angeles Shape Note Singers agree. “It’s addictive,” says Natalie Hall, a former UCLA publicist who lives in Van Nuys. Hall, who goes to both the Westside and Eagle Rock “singings” each month, says she is considering have a bumper sticker made that reads: “Sure I sing shape note. But I can stop anytime I want.”
Itinerant music teachers popularized shape note 200 years ago, touting the system as easier to learn than traditional notation. Sacred harp music has only four notes, each readily associated with its distinctive shape. Fa is flag-shaped, or triangular. Sol is shaped, more or less, like the sun (oval). La is a square (the singers remember that two l’s can be fitted together to form a square). And mi or me is a diamond--"Diamonds are for me” is the standard phrase to help singers remember.
Shape note or sacred harp music has been popular since its inception in fundamentalist churches in the South, where black groups once sang from a book called the “Colored Sacred Harp.” In the last several decades it has been taken up by secular groups, such as the Los Angeles contingent, which was founded a decade ago. (The local group will host the 4th Annual All-California Sacred Harp Singing Convention here in January.)
Many secular shape note singers first discovered the music at folk festivals. That was how Stephen O’Leary, a USC communications professor, found it. O’Leary was a graduate student in Chicago, where there is a large, active group founded by “folk musicians who were tired of singing the same songs over and over again and were looking for new old music.” According to O’Leary, many of the secular groups in the North initially thought they were reviving a moribund music and were unaware that sacred harp was alive and well in Georgia, Mississippi and elsewhere in the South.
Although it took O’Leary a year to master the notation, he loved the music from Day 1. The group occasionally performs in public, but, as O’Leary explains, sacred harp is meant to be sung, not heard.
Although many of the local singers have fine, educated voices, sacred harp is meant to be sung by everyone. “It isn’t for beautifully trained voices,” says Hall. “It’s for the folk.”
During their singing, the members take turns standing in the middle of the square and leading the group in a favorite hymn. Leading is a heady experience, especially in large groups, because the rousing sound is focused on the leader. “When there are 150 voices all beamed at your head, it ruins you for expensive stereo,” says Frank P. Hoppe, who edits closed captions for the hearing impaired for television and home videos.
O’Leary, who is the informal leader of the group with wife, Mary Rose, says sacred harp has changed his life. He fell in love with the peculiar four-part harmonies of shape note music. “We met in Chicago in the tenor section of the group there,” he says of Mary Rose. And whenever one of the O’Learys gets up to lead, the other takes over the care of their toddler, Lucy, who first heard shape note music in utero. “She’s a sacred harp baby,” they explain. And Hoppe observes, “As a newborn, she would get fussy only when we stopped.”
Maybe it is simply the result of more oxygen in the blood, but members admit they experience a certain euphoria as they sing. Whatever its source, theirs is a benign, democratic high. As Huckaby, who sang sacred harp as a child, puts it, “The rapture is available for everybody.”
Members say they like the ready acceptance they have found in the group. “We have everything from executives to manual laborers, but there is no question of status,” O’Leary says. “Nobody asks you how much money you make or what kind of car you drive.”
Some of the singers are atheists, and many have reservations about the harsh Calvinist theology and the occasional prejudices reflected in sacred harp lyrics. (The Chicago group routinely changes a reference to “envious Jews” to “envious few.”) But even some of the nonbelievers say they find consolation in the pages of the “Original Sacred Harp.” Mary Rose cites a Chicago singer’s observation that, “Going to a sacred harp singing is like getting your brain scrubbed.” Susan Jones, who works for the Advocate magazine, observes: “This is gut-level music. It puts you there. It’s not that it answers questions. It’s just there in your gut when everyone wants you to make nice.”
As Hall points out, the songs that “rhapsodize death” are especially popular. The sacred harp experience somehow transforms the dour lyrics into something else, something not readily found in the typical Angeleno’s life of getting and spending, commuting and detailing. “There’s a paradox that a group of people singing in four-part harmony about death, gloom and destruction can find pleasure, even joy in the act,” says O’Leary. “It’s a kind of catharsis.”
O’Leary says he has driven six hours each way to take part in a singing. Sacred harp has given him something he never expected to find in it, he says. “The more I sing, the more I find the music itself a source of spiritual sustenance, and you can have that sustenance without dogma or without any limitation on your lifestyle.”
Shape note singing seems to offer a salvation of sorts, or as John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” put it 200 years ago, “How sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me!”