Singing at home

Theology and Sacred Harp singing

In his essay “Sacred Harp Singing,” Stephen Marini assess the religiousness of Sacred Harp singing in the urban revival, and says in part: “The religious meaning of Sacred Harp today, I think, reflects the displacement of the sacred from primary religious institutions to secondary expressions… Northern [sic] singers have grown up after modernization disenchanted the worldview of primary religious institutions. They are secular urban individuals who have found in Sacred Harp a secondary expression of sacrality that fits well into their disparate and often eclectic worldviews.” (in Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music and Public Culture [Chicago: University of Illinois, 2003], pp. 86-87)

After the weekly singing tonight, I spent half an hour discussing theology with another singer. We compared his Calvinist theology with my Unitarian Universalist theology. It was one of the better theological discussions I’ve had in some months. And because we were not having the discussion within a formal or traditional religious setting, I guess Marini is correct: our conversation was a small example of the displacement of the sacred from primary religious institutions.

By way of contrast, I was talking with a couple of other signers last week who said they feel no religious content at all in Sacred Harp singing — it’s just music for them. And I suppose this is why last weekend the Portland Sacred Harp group had a singing school to teach singers about properly emphasizing the words of the songs. For those of us for whom the words have some level of meaning (in my case, very figurative and metaphorical but not less religious meaning), it is intuitively obvious where the proper emphasis belongs; but for those who feel no religious content in the songs might not think much about the words at all.

3 replies on “Theology and Sacred Harp singing”

Hi Dan, interesting blog. I am a card-carrying atheist who sings in an urban environment that is sort-of northern and sort-of southern, but not really either (Baltimore).

Regarding proper emphasis, I would contend that a deficiency is usually due to either lack of experience or lack of study. For me, comfort and competency with singing arrived through study and of course lots of singing. Once I was no longer distracted so much by the mechanics of singing, the character of each song (to which emphasis contributes) became as you say: intuitively obvious. In fact, on many songs, even those I’m unfamiliar with, that character or emphasis just jumps out at me. It’s written right there in the music.

I guess that makes me think that the solution you mentioned above (a singing school) is a good one. I just wonder if the problem might be lack of skill rather than lack of religion.

I have no experience with the Portland group, so I’m only generalizing here–I’m not trying to pick on them! I just wanted to offer an alternative explanation. Thoughts?

Take care and happy singing!


Sorry–forgot to mention: I find quite a lot of the imagery in the poetry quite moving, despite my lack of faith.



Chris — You could be entirely right. A friend of mine who does workshops for college choirs says that the single most consistent problem she corrects is getting the words right — younger singers concentrate on the mechanics of singing first, and the words last.

On the other hand, for most church folk, the words come first. In my own tradition of Unitarian Universalism, we often joke that the reason our singing sounds ragged is that we’re always reading ahead to see if we agree with the words (literally half of us are atheists, and all of us are skeptical). So we tend to worry about the words first, and the mechanics of singing last.

Bottom line is, those of us who aren’t very good singers (that would include me) are going to screw up something. The question is, what are we going to screw up?

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