The Hollow Square and the Intriguing World of Sacred Harp Singing

The world is full of undiscovered treasure.

Man is a curious creature, meant to explore, and often I find myself drawn to country places and country people. There is something very good to be said about the diminutive pockets of the world where these treasures lie, where lives tap to slower cadences and surer rhythms, with no threat of the off-kilter hustle of the city.

At times, these rural, metric notions are set in further harmony when events, such as dinner on the grounds and singings, usher travelers from far and wide. Such is the world of Sacred Harp singing. My first passage into this previously unknown phylum of sacred music happened when Linda Sides, Gospel music aficionado, asked me to accompany her to one of the singings held at Old County Line Church in Corner.

It was a bright autumn morning when I followed Linda to the delightfully cloistered community in north Jefferson County. Passing by rustic barns fronting the countryside, I noticed the newly-fallen leaves eddying behind her van. We pulled into the rock drive of the unadorned church and parked our cars where we could, in the grass. A man stood outside the church gulping a cigarette, as a ribbon of smoke rose into the sky. Linda handed me a copy of The Sacred Harp tune book, a burgundy-colored, oblong effort that is the skeleton key to shaped-note wonderland. We walked up the ramp, and I was officially indoctrinated into the fraternity of Fasola.

Sacred Harp singing, otherwise known as Fasola (Fa-so-la) is an American tradition that has colonial origins, though its polyphonic chants sound pseudo-Gregorian, if not Native American or Celtic. All songs are sung a capella. Not found are drum sets, pipe organs and other instruments, guitars or violins. Sacred Harp is built around the four-shape notational system, which was developed by Little and Smith in 1801, and The Sacred Harp tune book has remained in continuous publication since 1844.

Though Fasola is a folk sound that emanates from rural places, it is a highly urbane form of singing that requires participants to be able to read music to keep up. One must have more than a mere do-re-mi knowledge of musical scales; he must understand the shape notes and must not be timid. Singing is arranged with the four-parts (tenor, treble, alto, and bass) seated and facing one another. Song leaders stand in the middle ground, also known as the Hollow Square, where the sound is best appreciated.

When Linda and I stepped into the church, we were greeted by Danny Creel (the Creel name would come up time and again in conversations), a robust, jovial man, and “leader” of the singing (though participants might submit that in Sacred Harp singing, everyone carries the same clout).

“We sing on the letter and just let’r rip!” Creel promised.

Linda also assured me that this was a multigenerational effort, and stressed that traditions were passed down through family members, including Danny Creel’s family. I shook hands with wayfarers from Henagar (Sacred Harp is popular around Sand Mountain); Knoxville, Tennessee; Jasper, Huntsville, San Antonio, and Terre Haute, Indiana.

At 9:30, it was time for singing. Folks took their respective stations in the primitive sanctuary, sans Central Heat and Air, as a lone ceiling fan throbbed and an exposed light bulb dangled from the ceiling. A defunct King heater rested near a spot where legend claims to have wielded a potbelly stove. Wood paneling on the walls found no paint, small quilts were installed in pews, and a wooden cross serving as an altarpiece grew out of a plant pot at the front of the church.

The singing began. A man sitting in the corner, furiously scribbling on a legal pad, called out the names of people who would stand in the Hollow Square and lead the singing—followed by the crooner on-deck:

“Next is Linton Ballinger followed by Marlon Beasley.”

Ceremoniously, each person, young and old, male and female, confidently strode to the front and coaxed sweet voices from the sanctuary. Each song was prefixed by the hard-to-follow Fasola chorus. Tenors began the four-part, nondenominational parade of singing. So la la la fa so, Fa so la so so, and so on. To a newcomer, the voices at first seemed pell-mell and I wondered if this action could be considered the singing cousin to speaking in tongues— a melodic Pentecostal ad lib. But as I began to notice further, each square of voices resounded with the same staccato words. The precursor verse in this Fasola format was sung to each song, followed with the normalcy of hymn singing: the actual words themselves. Leaders would often spin on the Hollow Square axis, pointing to each group when it was their time to bellow. Exultant faces with mouths open wide and aloft eyebrows crowned each song. Feet tapped against the hardwood floors and the thump of the noise rocked the walls of this spirit-brimmed place. Others chopped their hands from temple to waist, slashing air like a priest administering a blessing. Voices would depart, and then join back together like clockwork at the end of a verse. Lyrics were often repeated and echoed in rising, oceanic crescendos. For instance, “Thy presence through my journey shine” of “A Thankful Heart” (#475) might circumnavigate the room, climbing with each current of the masses. The church seemed to sway with these eternal sounds, as if we were all passengers on a singing Ark—praise be to God.

Tunes in the book were festooned with applicable Scripture. I particularly liked the mention of Psalm 150:6 “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord” and noted it on my legal pad.

With the Spirit of Christ fully in our bloodstreams, it was Linda’s turn to lead. Her song was #225 T. “Reynolds”, and, to my surprise asked me to come up to the front—I believe to sing with her—or at least be able to experience the eternal significance of this perhaps six-by-twelve hallowed Sacred Harp ground.
Before I knew it, I was in the Hollow Square.

I am by no means a singer, but what I lack in tenor and pitch, I make up for with vigor. I plied along with the words and prayed for no misstep.

Forever blessed be the Lord, My Savior and my Shield
He sends his Spirit with His word,
To arm me for the field.
A friend and helper so divine
Doth my weak courage raise
He makes the glorious vict’ry mine
And His shall be the praise.

After our haphazard duet, Linda looked over at me and nodded, thereby asseverating my performance.
From time to time, the group took recesses (events can last for six hours, days even) where stout coffee and pigs-in-a-blanket were complimentary. As lunch neared, each recess found more and more Reynolds Wrap-covered dishes and serving bowls, stretching out across three tables. Forever married to this singing tradition is the potluck lunch, otherwise known as “dinner on the grounds.”

During lunch, Linda said it best: “We sing hard and we eat hard.”

After two platefuls, I walked down the old road beside the church that led to a cemetery. I noticed the sun lustrously shining on decaying tablet gravestones. One read, “Asleep with Jesus.” Soon, I turned back toward the church, blissfully sauntering through the slumping trees as the honeyed sounds of Fasola rang through my mind.

Leaving the church, I wondered whether I would ever master the sounds of Fasola. I wondered if Fasola would take. It is not for everybody, but it certainly is everything for some.

Linda assured me that Sacred Harp singing is enjoyed by both believers and unbelievers alike, and I believe that Sacred Harp is just more evidence of God trying to reach us through music.

This week, pockets of Sacred Harp enthusiasts will zigzag through Appalachia and the Midwest to find a singing. They’ll drive six, eight hours to be in the presence of the Lord. Unpretentiously, they will carry their traditions through the years like rucksacks, marching onward to Zion after they’re plugged in the earth. They will light the candles of their posterity, and hope that adoration does not flicker through the corridors of time.

Through it all, they have realized one immortal thing: that treasure may be found within. There is within all of our hearts a melody, a song to be sung, a flame to burn.

A Sacred Harp. 78

More information on Sacred Harp singing can be found at www.fasola.org.

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