Louisiana Public Broadcasting will air Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp on Thursday, April 24, at 10:00 p.m. Those of you in other parts of the country may have already seen it: most public television networks aired it a few months ago (I know APT aired it twice in December). If you missed it, there is a link on the web site where you may purchase the DVD as well as audio CDs.
Sacred Harp singing is a very important part of American history. One can hear in it the echoes of the early American “fuguing tunes” of William Billings. The most haunting, sturdy, and enduring American hymn tunes have come to us from the Sacred Harp, including MORNING TRUMPET, WAYFARING STRANGER, and NEW BRITAIN.
The web site has several audio samples and a trailer of the film that you may watch online. If you’ve never encountered Sacred Harp singing, hold on to your hat. It is not for the faint of heart! This is unvarnished, unpretentious singing. This is as far from your microphone-swallowing, maudlin, typical church soloist of today as you can get. As the film notes, people gathered to sing Sacred Harp are not singing for an audience: they are singing for one another and for God. There is no pretense in Sacred Harp. It is Coram Deo music: music of the soul laid bare. Hearing it online, or even on TV, does not do it justice. The first time you step into a square (Sacred Harp singers always sit in a square, with the leader standing in the middle), hear those singers tune up, and then sing through an entire stanza, full-throttle, using FA-SOL-LA only (the words are used the second time through), you will get chills up and down your spine: that’s a guarantee.
Sacred Harp goes way back in my family. It probably goes way back in yours too, if you’re from the South.
Set that Tivo for Thursday night at 10:00 p.m. on LPB.