A Plea for Participation in the Sacred Harp Tradition

By Ginnie Ely (March 1998)

This writing is directed at anyone who is new to Sacred Harp music. I define "new" to mean anyone whose parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or other family members did not sing Sacred Harp music. You are the people who discovered Sacred Harp music all on your own.

It is especially important that you understand that there is a more than two hundred year old tradition behind this music. There is a lot more to the tradition then just getting together with friends and opening the Sacred Harp songbook and singing the songs. You could do that with any hymn book or folksong book or madrigals or any other type of music. Over time the components of the Sacred Harp tradition have been established with regards the music and its style, the environment in which we sing, and the customs of the people.

There was concern not long ago that the tradition was in danger of disappearing. In recent years many people have discovered the wonders of Sacred Harp music and so the number of people who are singing has increased. However, the danger now exists that the new people will not understand the history and practice of the tradition and indeed, the increased number of newcomers may cause more harm then good.

I am not asking you to blindly adopt someone else's tradition. Rather, I am asking you to participate in the centuries old tradition as it exists today. We newcomers are not here to reinvent the tradition. The tradition already exists. And it has been evolving for over two centuries to be what we see and hear today. Also, we are not here to try to imitate the singers of two hundred years ago in New England, but rather we are here to take up the flame in its present form and carry it forward respecting all that has gone before and letting that guide us as we move forward in time and place.

So I plead with each of you who did not grow up in the tradition, go and sing with the traditional singers and Listen! Watch! Observe! and participate. Read the histories. Try very hard not to force your own musical and philosophic assumptions on the existing tradition. The tradition will continue to evolve. Each of us contributes to that evolution. Just be careful that the elements within the main stream of the tradition are the dominating forces that drive the evolution, not our external assumptions.

I do not wish to spend a lot of space here describing the tradition. Seeing descriptions in the written form just doesn't make the same impact as going to a singing and being with the people, singing the music yourself, and experiencing the tradition in its full-blown glory. But here are a few helpful hints to illustrate what I mean.

Be prepared for:

When singing the music:

When attending a convention:

Please come and sing, we would love to have you. And bring your friends and family too. The weather will be warm, the barbecue irresistible, the friendships everlasting, and the music will feed your soul.

Ginnie Ely (ginnieely@gmail.com)

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