Rarely have we enjoyed an educational experience that had as powerful an emotional component to it as we did today at the Headrick Chapel in Wears Valley. The Chapel was built in 1902 on property which was given for use by four different Christian denominations: Primitive Baptist, Missionary Baptist, M.E. Church, and the M.E. Church South. Our attendance at the Headrick Chapel Singing was our third exposure to Old Harp Singing in two weeks, and it will leave a lasting impression.
Less than two weeks ago, we were introduced to Old Harp singing by Park Ranger Tom Harrington at the Primitive Baptist Church in Cades Cove. Six days ago, we met Robin Goddard, Nancy, Nan, Otis, Earl, and others during the Fourth Monday Singing at the Broadway United Methodist Church in Maryville. I’m still not sure if I have a good understanding of “shape-note” singing, but I have an excellent idea of the sound that shape-note singers produce.
In “shape-note singing,” the musical notation uses note heads in four distinct shapes (Sacred Harp singing) or seven shapes (Old Harp and Christian Harmony) to aid in sight-reading. (The term “sacred harp” refers to the human voice.) The system using shapes was developed by M. L. Swan in the mid-19th century to quickly teach people to sing.
Old Harp music is traditionally sung in a "hollow square," with each voice part facing the center. Referring to the photo below, altos would sit in the three rows with the woman in the print dress, trebles would sit on the right three rows with the man in the checked shirt, bass singers would sit on the left three rows (where the man is standing), and the leads would sit in two groups of three rows each (with the woman in the beige blouse). The reason for the hollow square is to enable the singers to hear each other.
From A Guide to Old Harp, "the song leader stands in the center, beating out the rhythm and delighting in the unearthly blending of sound."
In an orderly sequence, any person who wants to lead the singing (the youngest leader today is shown at the left) introduces himself or herself and gives the number of the song the person wants to lead. Those assembled (and today there were over 100 people singing) first "shape" the song by singing the syllables of the shapes through once. They then sing the lyrics.
The Guide best describes the singing: "The singing style of Old Harp is full bore, guts on the floor singing. They leave to others the delicate phrasing, the gentle modulation of dynamics and tone. For those accustomed to the weak insipid style of congregational singing that has currency in most white dominated churches, exposure to Old Harp in full wail can be an ear-ringing experience."
No instruments accompany the singing, and if the initial pitch is too high or too low, the group stops, makes a change, and effortlessly continues. The melody line is often in the "lead" or tenor line so that male and female voices blend in all four groups (simply by changing the octave in which the line is sung).
The combination of the "full bore" singing and the wooden floors, walls, and ceiling of the small chapel create a sound that is beautiful beyond words. Standing outside the Chapel, one can almost hear the sounds of the human voices echoing off the hills that surround the valley. It was magnificent.
This experience was made even more powerful for us when we were invited to join the leader in the center of the "hollow square" for the next-to-the-last song. We understood the meaning of "delighting in the unearthly blending of sound." What an honor to be invited to share in that experience of hearing the voices in the way that only the leader hears.
The singing began at 11:00. At noon, the group broke for a potluck lunch. Kate made what many a Midwesterner would bring to a potluck lunch--three bean salad. At 1:00, the group re-assembled and sang until nearly 3:30.
Represented in the four groups of voices, were singers from Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.
Represented in the small group of listeners were two people from Pennsylvania.