Wednesday, October 15, 2008

KQED Music: Awake, My Soul / Help Me To Sing

Devotional music has a pretty bad rep among nonbelieving sections of the listening public. It's easy to understand why if you have ever endured one of those interminable ads for mail-order-only collections of bland Christian rock on TV. Despite the existence of such unholy dross in this world (but hopefully not the next), there remains a rich seam of music inspired by the almighty that can stir the heart of even the most godless listener; it just doesn't tend to be advertised on daytime cable.

The full-blooded harmonies of Sacred Harp singing is an ideal example. Few people have heard of this uniquely American choral tradition outside of the few Southern backwaters where it was born in the early 1800s. For two centures, small congregations have gathered for communal recitals known simply as a "singing." But these are no ordinary church choirs. The music is rebellious in its disregard for musical convention, punk in its inclusivity, and powerful in a way that only music performed with true passion can be, regardless of what may have inspired it.

The first important thing you need to know about Sacred Harp music is there aren't any harps involved. Sung without accompaniment, the name instead refers to the voice, our "god-given" instrument. There is no audience either, only participants. Individuals take turns to lead the group in a song, standing in the center of a square of singers, who all sit facing the middle. Each side of the square takes a different vocal part: treble, alto, tenor, and bass.

The music is written using a unique system of notation, with four notes (fa, sol, la, mi) represented by four shapes to make it easier to read (which gives rise to the tradition's other name: shape-note music). These four notes, repeated to form the octave, are sung by name through the first verse of each song, before more conventional lyrics take over. That first run-through of nonsensical syllables evokes both the idea of singing in tongues, and the doo-doo-doo style harmonies of rock bands such as the Beach Boys (although a closer reference here might be the Langley Music Project's Beach Boys cover versions).

Like much of the world's best music, Sacred Harp is performed at full volume throughout. As participation is mandatory, some of the singers are not the most accomplished vocalists, but the lack of skill in some is more than compensated for by the spirit and enthusiasm of all. Underneath the complex, repeating harmonies, the music is driven on by a stomping rhythm that never seems to let up.

The story of The Sacred Harp can be traced back to the traditions of the earliest puritan pilgrims, whose austere beliefs didn't (as many people may think) extend to banning music completely. However, instruments were seen as an unneccesary indulgence, as was the idea of singing anything other than the Psalms, or anywhere outside of church.

Hence an a cappella tradition was born that spread as these early immigrants swelled in number and moved south. The tunes developed in style, becoming quite different from the English hymns they had started out as. Relatively untrained musicians added new compositions to the canon with little regard to European conventions and rules. Indeed, the story provides an interesting argument against the widely accepted idea that jazz is modern America's first indigenous musical form.

These unconventional songs grew in number and popularity. In 1844, Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King put together a collection of more than 250 popular and original songs, called The Sacred Harp. This book has served as the tradition's other bible ever since, its revisions and changes reflecting the schisms and evolution of the musical movement itself.

This story is told in the movie documentary Awake, My Soul, which in turn has given birth to a soundtrack CD of the same name, featuring performances by contemporary choirs who are helping to keep the tradition alive. Each song begins the same way: with a wave of voices rising together with irrepressible vigor. Even the odd bum notes songs are sung with such unbridled enthusiasm that you begin to wonder if the mistake might be yours rather than theirs. The rough edges are part of the pleasure; one track, "Restoration 312b," even features a child crying in the background. The whole thing is wonderfully, strangely real.

And now, to accompany a new DVD release of the film, a second CD has been added: Help Me To Sing features modern musicians performing their own versions of the songs of the Sacred Harp. While the authentic versions are relentless in their intensity and forcefulness, this second set is more mixed in both tone and quality.

The songs that don't work so well tend to be those attempting to divine some underlying beauty in the originals. Unforunately, once you strip away the spirit and multipart harmonies, most of the songs are revealed to be fairly thin source material. The worst end up sounding like nursery rhymes, with a rather dull, childlike simplicity. The best interpretations, on the other hand, retain the fire and brimstone of the originals, for example the pounding guitar and harmonica on "Weeping Pilgrim 417" by Elvis Perkins in Dearland, or the caterwauling singing style of Mac Powell's "Help Me to Sing 376" and "The Traveler 108b" by Cordelia's Dad.

Overall, the hit to miss ratio is about even and, with 20 tracks in total, that means a good amount of bang for your buck. But the real value lies with the 24 original songs on the first disc. Even if you've never raised your own voice in praise of the big guy upstairs, or even believe he exists, this music is something to be thankful for. Amen.

'Awake, My Soul: The Original Soundtrack / Help Me To Sing: Songs of the Sacred Harp' and the DVD 'Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp' are both out now, via Awake Productions.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.