After silence,
that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.
Aldous Huxley (1894 - 1963)



Juxtaposed in front of the Albert Schweitzer Memorial Pipe Organ, the medieval-sounding a cappella harmony and sometimes-fatalistic lyrics from the Sacred Harp chorus was a perfect fit for the stage in Spivey Hall’s world-acclaimed concert auditorium. There is a kinship. The music, like Spivey’s benefactors and supporters, is quintessentially Georgia and the origins of Sacred Harp are as ancient as the first appearance of the pipe organ in European churches.

For those still unfamiliar with Spivey Hall, Georgia’s performing arts gem on the campus of Clayton State College and University, it is the result of a group of philanthropists with a collective vision to bring into this region the great music of the world. Through family and corporate donations, Spivey Hall was completed in 1992, outfitted with a 20,000 pound pipe organ built by Fratelli Ruffatti, and designed with such acoustic perfection that you can hear a stage whisper on the back row of the intimate and regally appointed concert hall.

Over the years at Spivey Hall, I have enjoyed jazz greats Gene Harris, Cleo Laine, Betty Carter, Dianne Reeves, Russell Malone, and Charlie Byrd along with opera legends Renee Fleming, Denyce Graves, Dawn Upshaw and Byrn Terfl. My favorite memory is a June evening in 1998 with Dixie Carter which included an interview. Ms. Carter, I learned, is a skilled cabaret performer who trained to be an opera singer and once played Maria Callas on Broadway.

My life is enriched by Spivey’s cultural mission.

Sacred Harp music singing at Spivey Hall was part of its unwavering commitment to music education and community betterment, and was on the acclaimed stage largely through the dedication of Gene Pinion who serves as Spivey’s outreach coordinator. Most authorities concur that Sacred Harp is America’s oldest continuing music form and stands right alongside the other great music born, synthesized and popularized in the south: gospel, blues, country, bluegrass, jazz and rock and roll.

Historically, the melodies of Sacred Harp were probably the product of the Reformation in Europe and came over with all the diverse groups who settled the colonies. While the music was sung in early New England, it was driven south after the American Revolution by church-sponsored culture wars, and found a happy home here in Appalachia and beyond. The acknowledged preserver of Sacred Harp was a Georgian, B. F. White, whose collaborative effort resulted in the first Sacred Harp hymnal in the 1840’s.

Another Georgia native, Hugh McGraw, has fostered the Sacred Harp tradition and is the primary force in publishing the revised hymnal in Bremen, Georgia. The National Endowment for the Arts recognized McGraw’s lifelong effort and honored him with the National Heritage Award in a White House ceremony. With this award, McGraw stands alongside other recipients like B.B. King, Blind Boys of Alabama, John Lee Hooker, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson.

Sacred Harp singing appears easy, but it requires instruction that is very abundant in almost every area of the country. Put Sacred Harp music in a search engine and you’ll find everything you want and much more. Basically, the four harmony divisions face each other to make a square. A leader, who is customarily rotated after each song, announces the name and page number of the song, a pitch is established and the singing begins with the leader’s hand movement establishing a beat.

The songs have obscure titles but are often familiar. While at Spivey, the choir sang two versions of the venerable hymn, “Amazing Grace,” an original in the Sacred Harp tradition. It was titled “New Britain,” and sounded like a song that King Arthur might have heard at chapel. Another hymn of first impression had the familiar music of “Auld Lang Syne.” Each song has a comforting effect, is somehow soul soothing and harkens back to unknown ancestors. Therein, according to observers, are the main ingredients of the growing popularity of Sacred Harp singing in such places as Manhattan, Boston, New Jersey, Chicago and Los Angeles, plus college campuses.

The mysticism of Sacred Harp music has caught Hollywood’s eye. The soon to be released movie, “Cold Mountain,” based on the chilling best-seller about the horrors of Western North Carolina at the end of the Civil War, has Sacred Harp throughout its soundtrack.

I have enjoyed Sacred Harp music in Nashville, New Orleans, Louisville and Raleigh. But, here in the Atlanta area, it is performed somewhere weekly, notably in Alpharetta and Decatur. Every other year, the Georgia State Sacred Harp Convention takes place in the Old Dekalb Courthouse and you can hear the joy-filled music blocks away.

Sacred Harp music is geared to participation, not perfection. By encouraging each participant to sing with power, there is a beneficial emotional release. I can’t imagine anyone singing in this style and leaving for home other than happy. It indeed has euphoric qualities.

Keith Willard, a Sacred Harp enthusiast in Minneapolis, described the experience as ”sounds composed in heaven with a thunder greater than any chorus of angels. Sharing round the pain of dying by singing right down in the face. Living and singing with the people who were and are too stubborn to trade in the beautiful for the acceptable. To be part of a remnant in time, attached the roots of a great old tree and given the chance to partake in its nurture.”

Spivey Hall was the perfect place for Sacred Harp music on a splendid Georgia summer day.

 

 

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