Reading list

Reading list: Sacred Song in America

I had a committee meeting tonight and could not attend the weekly Berkeley singing. Instead, a short reflection on an essay by Stephen Marini about Sacred Harp singing:

When he was writing Sacred Song in America, Stephen A. Marini spent seven years traveling across the United States finding out about American sacred song traditions. He participated in and listened to many different kinds of sacred singing, and he interviewed notable composers and performers of sacred song. Since he is a historian by trade, of course his book talks about the history of sacred song in the United States. The third chapter in the book, “Sacred Harp Singing,” is devoted entirely to the Sacred Harp singing tradition.

Marini has been singing Sacred Harp since the mid-1970s, and he is a central figure in the New England branch of the Northern revival. He not only has an intimate and first-person knowledge of key moments in the history of the Northern revival, he also knows a fair number of the most influential traditional Southern signers.

In “Sacred Harp Singing,” Marini tells us how Sacred Harp singing is a form of sacred song, although the way in which it is sacred may differ for Northern and Southern singers. He interviewed several prominent traditional Southern singers, and they told him that they explicitly consider Sacred Harp singing to be a form of sacred song. However, many Northern singers don’t talk about Sacred Harp music as being a form of sacred song and, says Marini, “the cultural divide between northern and southern singers could hardly be greater.” Many northern singers do say that they find something implicitly “sacred” in Sacred Harp singing, and some Northerners even talk about it as being sacred song. Yet even then, Northern notions of the sacredness of the music are typically different from, and less unified than, traditional southern notions. We could say that while traditional Southern singers are modernists, Northern revival singers are postmodernists.