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How one Southern church forges unity through voice

The centuries-old tradition of Sacred Harp, a form of choral singing in which anyone can participate, draws people to a spare church in rural Alabama once a year.

By Carmen K. SissonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 28, 2008

Nauvoo, Ala.

The road to Liberty Grove Primitive Baptist Church meanders through northern Alabama, a lazy, looping ribbon of smooth blacktop at times, a treacherous snake of faded, broken gray asphalt at others. It's a path not unlike that of faith. Not unlike that, at times, of life itself.

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Voices rise and fall in the breeze, audible long before you see the simple wooden church resting beneath a canopy of hundred-year-old oaks. The doors and windows are open, and music pours out across the desolate landscape, winding through the trees and lifting through billowing white clouds to a heaven of clear blue sky.

The music is Sacred Harp, a nondenominational form of choral singing that encourages community participation. Despite suggestions that the tradition is dying, there are singings from Chicago to San Francisco, and even the United Kingdom, every week, some attracting as many as 1,000 participants.

Slick CDs are being produced, and professors from around the world are hunching over atlases and MapQuest directions, trying to find their way to churches like Liberty Grove, hoping to study a culture that has become synonymous with the rural South but began in the singing schools of colonial England.

Today, fans of the music face a steep challenge – how to bolster the momentum of Sacred Harp and continue to make an ancient folk tradition relevant in today's modern world.

Liberty Grove, established in 1835, is the type of church typically associated with Sacred Harp. The church interior is unadorned. Bare pine walls. Plain metal fans and naked bulbs dotting the pine ceiling. Worshippers scattered among straight pine pews in uneven clusters, their hands rising and falling in 4/4 rhythm, down on the first beat, up on the third. Feet keep time as well.

Everything here is about time. Man's journey through life. God's infinite presence from creation through eternity. The music itself, sparse and raw, hearkening to a world where salvation and redemption were the backbone of rural culture.

The songs, culled from an 1844 hymnal, The Sacred Harp, were updated in 1991. The music is a style of shape-note singing, also known as fasola, in which the notes are printed in special shapes that help the reader identify them on the musical scale.

The songs center around death and resurrection, sin and repentance, minor keys lending a sad poignancy. Despite the name, there is no instrumental accompaniment. "Sacred harp" refers to what followers say is a God-given instrument – the human voice.

Singers face one another in straight-backed wooden chairs forming a hollow square – men on one side, women on the other – altos, basses, tenors, and trebles holding songbooks they no longer need to read.

The music is entrenched, etched into memory by childhood Sundays that seemed too long – itchy, starched dresses and pinching patent leather shoes, choking ties and hair slicked down with mothers' spit.

• • •

"Fa so la," Arthur Gilmore begins, his deep voice providing the pitch to guide the singers. From his position in the center of the square, he gets an experience unique to the leader – a wall of sound buffeting from four directions in quadraphonic stereo. There'll be no sermon today. Never is. The songs themselves are lessons for the followers, but religion is left on the doorstep, as are politics.

The purpose is the music, and its unique sound attracts people from all walks of life, from Buddhists to Jews. Sacred Harp singing is participation more than performance, open to anyone who wishes to enjoy it, out of spirituality, curiosity, or a love for music.