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How one Southern church forges unity through voice

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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.

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