Sacred Harp Exhibit (January 2010)

The sacred harp is not a particular piece of musical equipment, but a reference to the human voice, "the musical instrument you were given at birth" ( A form of shape-note singing, sacred harp music employs a scale of four shaped notes: fa, sol, la, and mi. The page to the right provides an example of these notes, using a familiar tune to which you can practice. Click on it for a larger version. Click here for the original source at the Smithsonian.

The dispersed harmony associated with sacred harp singing requires that each voice-treble, alto, tenor, and bass-be given its own line. Typesetting these lines gives sacred harp books their distinctive rectangular shape. In practice, different voices in the music will cross one another, providing a lively chorus of ever-changing voices.

Sacred Harp Singings

Sacred Harp Sing at Cannon Chapel Sacred harp singings, commonly called conventions, follow a familiar pattern: singers sit facing one another in a square, arranged in sections by voice. Both women and men sing tenor and treble parts, starting in different octaves. The conductor leads from the center of the square, and all participants have a chance to lead throughout the day. Customarily, the conductor directs the tempo with one hand only. There are breaks for meals and fellowship, as most singings last a full day. This photo from the sacred harp singing held at Candler in February shows the singing group arranged in a square with the conductor in the middle. Click here to view a slideshow from a Sacred Harp Sing at Cannon Chapel at Emory University.

Shape Note Books

The following items represent other forms of shape-note singing and significant volumes in the tradition.

The community of the sacred harp

The sacred harp community is valued as much as the singing by many regular attendees. Numerous writers have described how they've met friends and spouses and connected with older and younger family members over the course of sacred harp singing days and conventions. The items below illustrate some of these aspects of this singing community.

Newsletters from sacred harp singers around the country attest to the tradition's growing popularity outside of the Southeastern United States. In this article published in the Chicago Sacred Harp Newsletter, a sacred harp singer from Boston describes the origin of the Norumbega Harmony singing group and dismisses the idea that the group is a performance group rather than a regular sacred harp community.

Chicago Sacred Harp Newsletter
[Raymond Hamrick Papers, MSS 323, Box 6, Folder 1]

Hugh McGraw became an influential promoter of Sacred Harp singing. In the letter here, he encourages singers to turn out for a recording of their music. McGraw also served as President of the National Sacred Harp Foundation, dedicated to preserving the history and heritage of the singing style.
[Raymond Hamrick Papers, MSS 323, Box 3, Folder 7]

These letters with the Head of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress illustrate Raymond Hamrick's ongoing involvement with learning and preserving the history of sacred harp music. He contributed a tape of sacred harp singing in Georgia to the archives and retrieved articles that informed his and his wife's work on the history of sacred harp singing.

Raymond Hamrick's Articles

The following articles about the history of shape-notes and the role of the pitcher are from the pen of Raymond C. Hamrick, a lifelong resident of Macon, Georgia, and a longtime sacred harp singer and composer. In "The curious history of shape notes," Hamrick describes the state of musical knowledge that readily adopted a system of associating a particular shape with a particular sound. In "The pitcher's role in sacred harp music," he discusses the method by which four prominent pitchers determine the tone at which a song should be sung, commonly a tone or a tone and a half lower than the pitch at which the song is written.

Hamrick, Raymond C. "The curious history of shape-notes." Unpublished article, 1968 (Published in the National Sacred Harp Newsletter in 1978).

[Raymond Hamrick Papers, MSS 323, Box 5, Folder 1]

Hamrick, Raymond C. "The pitcher's role in sacred harp music", Notes from the Sacred Harp 1(2): 1, 4-7.

[Raymond Hamrick Papers, MSS 323, Box 5, Folder 1]

Hamrick, Raymond C. "Sojourn in the South—Billings Among the Shape-Noters." Unpublished article, n.d.

[Raymond Hamrick Papers, MSS 323, Box 5, Folder 1]

Raymond Hamrick's letters

Raymond Hamrick became recognized as a knowledgeable voice in the sacred harp community, as these letters illustrate. In 1950, Pullen wrote, "It is indeed a pleasure to find one like you, a real Southerner, so deeply interested in his own native music. It is usually the Northerner who sees beauty in it and the Southerner who despises it." In this 1963 letter to Linda Traywick, Hamrick notes that while raised in the fa-sol-la tradition, he became personally involved in 1947 after returning from serving in World War II and attending a singing near his home. He also expresses appreciation for the recent interest in sacred harp singing, noting, "We have survived indifference and scorn for a hundred and fifty years and we feel that the recognition and respect that is now being accorded these old songs is but a long-overdue tribute to those sturdy musical pioneers of our country." In the 1967 letter from A. Marcus Cagle, Hamrick is asked to identify some traits of a piece of music, also shedding light on ongoing discussions in the sacred harp community about how tunes should be sung.

George Pullen Jackson, letter to Raymond C. Hamrick, October 1950.

[Raymond Hamrick Papers, MSS 323, Box 3, Folder 3]

Raymond C. Hamrick, letter to Linda Traywick, May 17, 1963.

[Raymond Hamrick Papers, MSS 323, Box 1, Folder 3]

A. Marcus Cagle, letter to Mr. and Mrs. Raymond C. Hamrick, February 13, 1967.

[Raymond Hamrick Papers, MSS 323, Box 1, Folder 11]

Recent sacred harp publications

The tradition of sacred harp composition and singing continues much as it always has, with new editions of the work including newly composed hymns along with a selection of favorite songs. The items below illustrate this ongoing work.

The Sacred harper's companion : a collection of hymns and anthems in traditional shape note style / by contemporary composers ; edited by Glen Wright and Susan Mampre. 1st ed. [Belmont, MA (4 Lewis Rd., Belmont 02178) : Musica], c1993. [1993 SACR]

Hamrick, C. Raymond.The Georgian Harmony : a collection of hymns and fuging tunes in the shape-note tradition [Georgia : Raymond C. Hamrick, c2008] [2008 HAMR]

The sacred harp: a collection of tunes, odes, hymns and anthems, fourth edition with supplement. Together with over one hundred pieces never before used for this work / Arranged and compiled by J. L. White and others. [2007 Edition Atlanta, Ga.? : J.L. White], 2007. [2007 SACR A]