Several days ago, I was thrilled to read the New York Times article by Phillip Lutz, “A Different Note on Race at Yale.” It recognizes the efforts of Dr. Ian Quinn to implement a tradition of Sacred Harp hymn-singing at Yale University. Referring to his first experience in 2008, Dr. Quinn said, “It just turned my whole world upside down. How moving it was for me to see this musical space where anybody could just walk in off the street and have this experience of singing in four parts without having to audition, without having to feel like they were performing.”
Coincidentally, it was also in 2008 that I was invited to attend my first Sacred Harp event. As I was preparing to leave graduate school for greener pastures, a senior member of my community chorus gifted me his dated copy of The Sacred Harp (1971), with information about local and regional “singings.” I was familiar with a long list of shape-note arrangements, but I was embarrassed to say that I had never been to a traditional singing before. In response, I programmed an entire concert of shape-note tunes, and to address my ignorance, invited Jesse P. Karlsberg and Lauren Bock to lead several singing schools in Potsdam, New York in 2009. (Jesse is currently the vice president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. His 2015 dissertation, “Folklore’s Filter: Race, Place and Sacred Harp Singing,” is referenced in the NY Times article mentioned earlier.) Like Dr. Quinn, the experience “revolutionized my relationship to music,” and since 2009 I have taken dozens of students to regional Sacred Harp events.
From the website of The Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association (www.fasola.org):
“Sacred Harp is a uniquely American tradition that brings communities together to sing four-part hymns and anthems. It is a proudly inclusive and democratic part of our shared cultural heritage. Participants are not concerned with re-creating or re-enacting historical events. Our tradition is a living, breathing, ongoing practice passed directly to us by generations of singers, many gone on before and many still living. All events welcome beginners and newcomers, with no musical experience or religious affiliation required—in fact, the tradition was born from colonial ‘singing schools’ whose purpose was to teach beginners to sing and our methods continue to reflect this goal.”
My own Sacred Harp addiction led to the idea of sponsoring an interest session that would provide a participatory experience for other choral conductors who, like myself, have conducted many shape-note tunes without having experienced a traditional Sacred Harp singing. This session is being co-presented by Dr. Thomas Malone, with special thanks to members of the local Sacred Harp community who will be in attendance. To make the experience as real as possible, a very brief introduction will be followed by a solid forty-five minutes of singing.
What better place than Boston to start a new musical addiction? Early eighteenth-century Bostonians produced America’s first two music textbooks in 1721. Singing schools began in Boston, and spread across the Northeast, spurring the compositional creativity of William Billings and other tunesmiths from the First New England School. Composers and singing-school teachers began using fa-sol-la solmization and shape-notes to teach music across the expanding frontier. Today, Boston is home to one of the most vibrant and active Sacred Harp communities in the Northeast.
It is my hope that this experience will help instill in others a deep appreciation for traditional shape-note singing, a desire to become more active in local Sacred Harp communities, or the motivation to establish communities where none currently exist. For more information about The Sacred Harp, please visit www.fasola.org.
Dr. Jeffrey Francom is associate professor and coordinator of the choral area at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music, where he conducts the Concert Choir and Crane Chorus, and teaches courses in music education and conducting. Previously, he taught at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island, where he also directed the Stony Brook Camerata Singers and Babylon Chorale. Prior to New York, Dr. Francom directed choirs at Mandarin High School in Jacksonville, Florida. He holds degrees from Stony Brook University (DMA), the University of Florida (MM), and Utah State University. Dr. Francom serves as a board member of NY-ACDA.