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.

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.

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.

Dr. Eric Eliason, a music professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, is one who has come to participate in the once-a-year event at Liberty Grove. He says he's taught Sacred Harp for years, but just began singing five months ago when he discovered a group meeting weekly 10 minutes from his house.

"I thought it was a Southern thing," Mr. Eliason says, filling his plate during the customary dinner on the grounds here, spread upon a long picnic table beneath the trees. For visitors like Eliason, the home-cooked meal, prepared over several days, is exotic. Sweet potato cobbler, fried okra, Coca-Cola ham, coconut cake, banana pudding. For others, it's everyday food, another day in the South.

Though some attribute the resurgence of Sacred Harp to its vignette in the movie "Cold Mountain," Eliason says it began rebounding in the 1970s thanks to singers like Bob Dylan, who spawned a renewed interest in folk music. Dr. Warren Steel, a professor of music at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., says technology has helped fuel the movement. Mr. Steel runs a website devoted to fasola and attends singings 30 weekends a year.

Today, both he and Eliason have been invited to lead. There's no pressure. If the singers falter, they begin again. Steel says singings still fulfill their original purpose – to gather communities together in a world where religion can be divisive and the arts are a commodity. "You can't buy this," Steel says. "You can't make money off it."

Still, there is some money involved. Liberty Grove gives $3,000 in scholarships every year and is seeking a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts and donations to build a music and cultural center. The purpose is to promote Sacred Harp singing, but other traditional music will be featured as well. The church has also taken advantage of technology, producing CDs, brochures, and operating a website.

Despite the publicity, everyone admits attendance is waning. There was a time when a singing like this would draw people from across the state to pile food and blankets into wagons and travel the dusty roads leading to the church. In later years, there were shiny campers and children buying snow cones from vendors, heedless to the white dresses and shirts that often fell victim to sticky-sweet rivulets of colored syrup.

• • •

Those days are gone now. The creek bed is dry, the tin dippers and wooden pails giving way to indoor plumbing and the steady beat of progress. Snow cone vendors haven't been here for years. The grounds now are spacious. A scant 40 people have gathered today in this one-red-light town of 284 people. Yet still, they come. And still, they sing.

Septuagenarian Sarah Beasley-Smith stares heavenward, her voice mingling with the others. Most of the people here today are related to her. Her mother and father met here. Her grandfather taught the singing school. She says the singings remind her of childhood and a time when she thought of this as "old folk's music."

She understands its appeal now. It's become a piece of her heritage she intends to keep alive. "It would have died if we'd kept it in the South," she says.

Seth Holloway leans against a sports car in front of the church, sending text messages and checking his MySpace page on his cellphone. A Christian music producer in Tennessee, Mr. Holloway comes home every year for the celebration he found boring as a child and admits is still somewhat tedious.

People are beginning to leave, a steady stream flowing to a slow trickle until at last the church is silent, windows lowered, doors locked. The wind kicks sand in great sweeps across the church's century-old cemetery. There is history here. Life, death, continuum.

And always, there is song.

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