Singing from the Sacred Harp


Last weekend I was in Sitka for the All-Alaska Sacred Harp Singing Convention, a gathering of around 35 singers from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, and Texas. The “sacred harp” refers to our vocal chords, which we tune, as the Biblical King David did his harp, to sing praises or laments. What a joyful noise we made! Over the course of the weekend, which began with a singing school on Friday night, we sang more than 100 songs from the Denson Sacred Harp songbook and some from the revised Cooper book. My vocal chords are fried but my soul is satisfied.

Many years ago, Kari Lundgren, who organizes the singing convention in Sitka, gave me a button with the words, “Who sings prays twice.” My Monday musing for this week has to do with those words. To me, it means that there is both an interior and an exterior aspect to this kind of singing. The exterior part is obvious. We sing out loud (and usually very loud) for each other. Because it is arranged in four-part harmonies and sung a cappella, we need each other to make the whole. We arrange ourselves in a hollow square with each part on a side, and we sing into the center. It is not typically performance music. To someone listening from outside the square the music sounds either beautiful and moving or discordant and disturbing. Sometimes we invite an outsider to sit in the center of the circle and feel the music coming from all four directions. It can be a transformative experience.

The interior aspect is less obvious but nonetheless real. As one of the leaders said last weekend, this music sinks into your soul and works on you. It does something that is difficult to describe in words. The songs are old hymns, full of religious language that most of us would not subscribe to except in this music. Some experienced singers know many of the songs by heart and sing them from that place in their heart where the songs live. I’ve come to realize that it both is and is not about the words. The words are like fingers pointing to the moon. They help us see where the reality is but are not in themselves the reality.

What does this have to do with prayer? How could one pray with all that racket going on? To me, praying is communication with the Divine Presence. It can take many forms, and it can happen anywhere. It happens for me especially in singing from the sacred harp.






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