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.
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"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.