Old-time music beats inside a Sacred Harp

By Trina Trice

Rise Ray Rudy grew up in LaGrange where she learned about her family's love for music.

It was in her youth that she learned Sacred Harp singing from her mother Daphine Ray and Grandmother Mildred Johnson.

She rekindled those musical moments at the Sacred Harp Singing School at Spivey Hall on the Clayton College & State University campus during a two-day workshop this summer.

Sacred Harp singing is non-denominational community and music event that spans as far back as the colonial period.

The tradition encourages participation, rather than performance.

"It's old-fashioned all day singing," said Gene Pinion, outreach coordinator for Spivey Hall. "This two-day event was singing school for school teachers or for people who wanted to learn about the Sacred Harp and its traditions."

Sitting in a circle on the Spivey Hall stage, the informal group of singers sang songs from "The Sacred Harp," a book that includes songs written by some of America's early composers between 1770 and 1810.

All voice's stood out as the singers attacked each note with gusto, filling up the Spivey Hall auditorium. Such vigor of voice is common in Sacred Harp singing.

Hugh McGraw, educator and publisher who led the workshop, calls Sacred Harp music "the oldest music in America."

For 50 years McGraw has had Sacred Harp music in his life.

"All my people have been involved in it all my life," he said. "It's a religious folk music. It's traditionally sung with the notes first and the words second."

Sacred Harp singers sing without instrumental accompaniment, which is called a cappella.

Singers learn the nature or tone of the notes by observing their shape.

The earliest Sacred Harp books used four syllables for the seven notes of a scale. Each syllable was represented by a distinctive note head: a triangle for the syllable "fa," an oval for "sol," a rectangle for "la," and a diamond for "mi."

That is why Sacred Harp singing is also called shape note singing.

"I went back to my roots," Rudy said. "It's a tradition that's been around for so long. It's like getting back to the true roots of American music. It's rooted in the Southern heritage.

"(Americans) adapted this to teach people how to sing. I think that's what the value of it is."

Rudy is a sixth-grade choral teacher at a Fayette County school.

John Odom, choral director at Lovejoy High School, studied Sacred Harp music while at a seminary.

"(Sacred Harp) was a system used when there was no public school system," he said. "It dates back to the 19th century. Itinerant music teachers used the (Sacred Harp) hymnal. It was in the church where music education was prevalent. It's used (today) particularly in primitive Baptist churches and the older conservative churches."

Although Odom doesn't use any Sacred Harp principles in his classroom, Argean Vokes, an elementary school music teacher, does. She attended the Spivey Hall workshop.

"I've read about the Sacred Harp singing, it's a part of our American history, especially in this part of the country."

Andy Anderson has attended many Sacred Harp singing events around Georgia and Alabama, he said, since he retired from the state Department of Labor five years ago.

Anderson remembers hearing Sacred Harp singing when he was 9-years-old while living in Habersham County.

"With the fast pace of things, we often say, ?Gee, I wish we had more time'," he said. "I can't relive being 9-years-old, but I can remember through memory and (Sacred Harp singing). And it gives you the ability to forget the world's problems, if you like to sing."