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Sacred Harp and Idumea

“And am I born to die? To lay this body down…”

The sacred harp, a musical instrument bestowed to us by Creation – our human voice.

The concept is at the core of a capella shape-note singing- a distinctively American way of music – this idea that the gift of the voice is heaven-sent and connects us to the divine.  With roots in the early 19th century, it was among the first styles of music distinct enough to be unique to the New World.  Today it is quite common around the country, but nowhere else more than in its home, the Southern United States.

Shape-note singing is so called because of its notation – to facilitate ease of reading, certain pitches receive a shape that distinguishes them from other notes.

Shape-note singing is an expression of the Sacred Harp.  There is more to it than just singing music.  Especially in the rural South, the Sacred Harp is way of spirituality and community.  There is no audience – each of the four sections face each other in a square.  The person leading is constantly changed-up.  Technique of singing is far less important than the coming together of voices.   Interpretations and embellishment of hymns are passed on aurally to the next generation.

The Sacred Harp is a great example of early America’s quest for a more perfect interpretation of Christianity and society – ideas that are still at the core of this country’s nature.

The raw open harmonies and age-old melodies tear at the soul- they make an intense prayer-  sometimes ecstatic, sometimes apocalyptic.

“Idumea” (number 47b of The Sacred Heart Hymnal) has to be one of the most chilling examples of shape-note singing.  A powerful confrontation with mortality and the transitory nature of existence.

“And am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown? A land of deepest shade,
Unpierced by human thought;
The dreary regions of the dead,
Where all things are forgot! Soon as from earth I go,
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe
Must then my portion be! Waked by the trumpet sound,
I from my grave shall rise;
And see the Judge with glory crowned,
And see the flaming skies!
The lyrics were written in 1763, and arranged to music in 1816.
It was featured in Cold Mountain, in a polished version, which is nice- but I prefer the more raggedly human versions of the real thing.
For more:
There are also numerous shape-note singing meetings throughout the nation and beyond.  Of course anyone can take part.
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