Many singers in the urban revival start singing Sacred Harp singing because of the raw, haunting beauty of the music. At the beginning, many newcomers simply ignore the words that go with these beautiful tunes. But at some point, most Sacred Harp singers find themselves paying attention to the words of the songs that they’re singing. I’d like to talk briefly about how we singers of the urban revival might come to terms with the words of the songs we sing.
(A note about terminology: Traditional Southern singers refer to the words of the songs as the “poetry,” even though some of the words are in prose form, not verse. I’ll use this traditional terminology here, even though it may be a little confusing at first. In this essay, every time you see the word “poetry,” just remember that I am referring to the words or texts of the songs.)
If you happen to be a Protestant Christian with evangelical tendencies, you’ll have no problems with the poetry in the Sacred Harp. You may not feel equally comfortable with all the poetry, because over the decades the editors of the Sacred Harp have tried to include poetry that will please evangelicals ranging from Lutherans to Primitive Baptists to Methodists. (Some of the poetry has even been written by such theological oddballs as Universalists and Shakers.) But generally speaking if you’re a Protestant Christian evangelical, the poetry in the Sacred Harp is from your tradition.
But what about the rest of us? How can we sing the poetry while both retaining our own personal integrity, and respecting the integrity of the poetry? I would like to suggest that there are at least three ways to do this, and I’ll describe them in order from the easiest to the most difficult.
(1) You can enjoy the music while ignoring the meaning of the poetry. Just as there are plenty of non-Lutherans who sing Bach’s B-minor Mass without feeling they have to believe or even deal with the meaning of the words of the mass, there are plenty of Sacred Harp singers who love the music without feeling the need to deal with the meaning of the poetry in the Sacred Harp.
This is a perfectly acceptable approach to take. However, if you are going to take this approach, you should remember that for some singers the meaning of the poetry is the most important part of Sacred Harp singing. Because singing Sacred Harp music is a sacred act for many people, all singers should remain respectful and courteous while singing. In particular, if you don’t find any particular theological meaning in the poetry, it would be wise to hide your skepticism, and it would be wise not to offer your own interpretations of the texts at a singing. In the same way, people singing Bach’s B-minor Mass don’t get into arguments about the theological validity of Lutheranism during a concert.
In this approach, you treat the music, the poetry, and the singers who are believers with respect and courtesy, and have your theological arguments in another venue. By taking this approach, you can in good conscience avoid all discussions about the meaning of the poetry in Sacred Harp.
(2) You can sing Sacred Harp the way an urban folk singer sings about cowboys. Think for a moment about the way an urban folk singer would treat the words to a song about, say, cow punching. This hypothetical urban folk singer has never been on a horse, has never branded a steer, and has never worn a ten gallon hat. Yet she or he can still “Git Along Little Dogies” with sincerity and integrity.
This hypothetical urban folksinger can do this because there is a long and respectable tradition of people singing songs from outside their own particular culture. We all do this all the time. To give just one example, here in the United States we can sing South African freedom songs in Zulu, yet most Americans are not Zulus who lived under South African apartheid. There is a human core to every song ever sung by human beings, and we can all appreciate (and to a certain extent understand) a song from another cultural or religious point of view.
However, our hypothetical urban folk singer doesn’t have to pretend to be a cowboy or cowgirl to sing “Git Along Little Dogies” with integrity and sincerity. In fact, pretending to be a cowboy or cowgirl when you’ve obviously never ridden a horse or punched a cow could be seen as mildly disrespectful or (more probably) just plain silly. Instead, our hypothetical urban folk singer would try to understand the cultural context of cowpunching and she or he would try to learn a little something about when and where cowpunchers sang these songs.
Similarly, if you’re going to take the approach with Sacred Harp singing it makes sense to learn something about the tradition. An excellent place to start is the book The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music by Buell Cobb, Jr. (University of Georgia: 1978, 1989).
Most probably, you’d also want to try to understand the meaning of the poetry, so that you’re not just singing meaningless syllables. Our hypothetical urban folksinger will be able to tell you, for example, that a “dogie” is a cow or steer. If you take a similar approach to singing Sacred Harp music, you’ll want to learn more about the specific meanings of the songs you’re singing. So for example, if you particularly like to sing song #178 “Africa,” you may want to learn what “Zion’s hill” means, and what a “mercy drop” is, and what is meant in this song by “saints.”
Deeper knowledge can only serve to help deepen your singing and your song leading. It doesn’t mean you have to hold the religious beliefs that the poetry expresses. But you can ask other singers, especially traditional singers, the meaning behind the words: who was Manasseh, and what were his stains? etc. I believe most Sacred Harp singers in the urban revival take this approach, and it works very well indeed.
(3) You can see Sacred Harp singing as a form of respectful interfaith dialogue. I’d like to suggest one final approach to retaining your own personal integrity while also respecting the Sacred Harp tradition. The best way to describe this last approach is as a respectful conversation, the kind of conversation we have in ecumenical and interfaith settings.
Think about trying to set up a successful interfaith conversation between, say, Buddhists and Christians. To begin with, you’d want both the Buddhists and the Christians to feel comfortable with and secure in their own religious identity. If they are comfortable and secure within their own religious identities, they will be able to open themselves fully to the insights and wisdom of the other tradition. As the conversation progresses, you’d want both parties to the conversation to find some common ground, some areas where they basically feel in harmony with one another. And you’d expect that both parties will find areas where they quite simply disagree, and where they agree to continue disagreeing.
This is the approach I follow while singing Sacred Harp music. I am comfortable and secure within my own religious tradition, a tradition that my family has been involved in for generations. From within my own religious tradition of Unitarian Universalism, I find much to value within the Sacred Harp tradition: the honest engagement with mortality and death; the need for mercy and grace in a life that can be harsh and difficult. In these areas of common ground, I can affirm the Sacred Harp tradition without reservation.
At the same time, there are other areas where I find little or no common ground with the Sacred Harp tradition. As a Universalist, for example, I do not accept eternal damnation; as a Unitarian I do not accept the divinity of Jesus; as a feminist, I find the gender-specific language problematic; and as a religious naturalist, I don’t accept supernaturalism in religion.
In one example of this approach, the Catholic monk Thomas Merton engaged in a deep, respectful conversation with Buddhism over many years. According to Merton, once while he was looking at sculptures of Gautama Buddha, something happened to him: “Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious.” There is the potential for this kind of profound experience in any ecumenical or interfaith conversation; so, obviously, there is the potential for this kind of experience when people who are not Protestant evangelicals who sing Sacred Harp music.
One further thing to keep in mind: when this kind of interfaith conversation takes place on neutral ground, you would expect and equal give and take. When an interfaith conversation takes place on the home turf of one of the faith groups in the conversation, you would expect the conversation to center around that faith group. So if you were from another faith tradition, and if I were to visit your religious home as part of an interfaith dialogue, I’d expect to mostly listen and learn about your faith tradition; and I’d expect you to be tolerant of my sometimes awkward questions, which I would ask out of simple ignorance. Thus, when I’m singing from the Sacred Harp, I’d expect my role, as someone from another faith perspective, would be to listen and learn — and of course I’d hope for toleranace from those who are the real carriers of the tradition.
This third approach is, I think, more difficult than the first two. It requires a strong sense of one’s own identity religiously and theologically. At the same time, it requires one to be willing to grow and to change as a result of the ongoing conversation one is having with the Sacred Harp tradition. It also requires one to be willing to feel awkward at times. I think it is probably easier to remain neutral and objective and slightly removed from the Sacred Harp tradition, as you can do with the first two approaches. Yet while this third approach may be more difficult, I have found it to be deeply rewarding, and it has helped me to grow and mature as a religious person when I have been “suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things.”
—Rev. Dan Harper