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The Cameron Art Museum has become a rather diverse arts presenter of late, offering jazz and dance in addition to art programs for the community. Now add semi-regular events by the Wilmington Sacred Harp Singers, a rather new comer to the Wilmington cultural scene. With the growing popularity of such singing, the organizers of the group are hoping to establish a Sacred Harp singing chapter here in Wilmington. From the appearance of Sunday's interested crowd, they have a good start.
Sacred Harp singing is an example of shape-note singing, a type of a cappella social singing which has been in continuous use in America since the late 18th century. Shape note books were compiled to allow people who did not read music to sing from the staff using shapes in addition to staff position to identify notes. Sacred Harp singing takes its name from the most famous of the shape-note books, The Sacred Harp, first published in 1844. Today this old style is preserved as indigenous in pockets of the South and is being reinvigorated in far-flung places such as Chicago, Massachusetts (the region where shape-note singing began), and Poland. This site discusses Sacred Harp singing today and serves as a resource for those interested in the tradition.
Shape-note sings (singings, as the practitioners call them), this one included, are not performances; they are participatory events. Singers sit in a square surrounding an open center where the leader – a new leader after every three or four songs – beats time for the group. While one can observe, the spirit of the occasion is when everyone sings.
This event included mainly people with little to no experience singing from shape notes. It was led by Cleve Callison, a Sacred Harp enthusiast known to many here from the public radio station WHQR. Mr. Callison led the event with enthusiasm and persistence. Since most of the participants were not experienced in the style, singing a tune required preliminary work. Each section would sing its own part alone, first in syllables (the four-syllable system of mi, fa, sol, and la) and then with the words. Holding to pitch could be a challenge! Gradually each group would be able to sing words and pitches successfully on its own and then with all four parts together – much harder than singing one's own line alone. The leader beats vigorously with vertical movements.
With more experience, the process becomes quicker. People raised in the tradition – practiced over generations in parts of Georgia and Alabama – know the tunes well and can sing their parts with ease. Sacred Harp singing may be harder for people who already read music than for those learning from scratch. Also, in the book The Sacred Harp, the words may appear a couple of lines away from where one is reading the notes; the eye has to read over a distance on the page that normal choral singers never need to cover.
The day's fare included familiar tunes such as "Amazing Grace" (here called by its earlier name "New Britain") and "Old Psalm 100," which is the doxology. Other tunes perhaps not familiar to non-initiates included "Coronation" and the fuging tune "Northfield." Each required preliminary practice, but by the end, some of the enthusiasm and abandon of the style was beginning to emerge from the group's efforts. One could feel the allure this type of singing holds for those who embrace it and let its fervor carry them along.
The next date in what the group hopes will be ongoing singings is to be in November. The exact date will be announced soon on the Cameron Museum and Wilmington Sacred Harp Singers websites. The last singing of the year is already set for December 29.