Sacred Harp Singing: Glossolalia, Polyphony, and Participatory Singing

What possible value could untrained, localized voices have for singing?  None, especially in this age of commercialism where we can buy the best for our listening pleasure, passive though our listening is.  Could participatory singing be more valuable for community building than the more passive state of “listening” most of us are accustomed to today?  After all, we are comfortable with consumption and the perfection it houses, but is music consumerism best for the hearts and souls of men?

I wouldn’t be wondering about this at all, had my son Hal not asked me about shape note singing and shared that his music appreciation professor at Sewanee was requiring him to attend a shape note singing meeting.  When Hal mentioned shape note singing to me, I remembered my dad talking about singing in the churches he attended as a boy–some of them Primitive Baptist–and how memorable it was for him, though he is now a man grown divided against the Church.

More than once, my dad told me about Elder Golden Harris and my Great Uncle Monroe Simpkins travelling to New York City from Floyd County, Virginia, for a recording session.  Uncle Monroe became so frozen with fear that he could not sing at the recording sessions, leaving Elder Golden Harris to finish the sessions alone.  I even related this in a poem which appears in Floyd County Moonshine.  Just a little superficial research online connects Elder Golden Harris with the rich heritage of shape note singing and American music that emerged from it: blues, blue grass, country, and other popular music, even rock-n-roll.

Well, let’s just cut to the chase: shape note singing is a “low church” activity.  In fact, when the shape note singers are getting warmed up, they explore just four notes in melodies without words, and the warm up practically hinges on glossolalia.  These religious distinctions aside, what I want to explore, though, is polyphony, a type of singing which is disappearing worldwide, church or not.

Polyphony is a musical gift for the people, an awe-inspiring and disordered order which permeates folk as well as religious music.  I would go as far as to call it a “joyful noise.”  Most common in sub-Saharan Africa, polyphonic singing is known to be integral to community building.  Heartfelt, resonant, wrenching…these are words that I can use today to describe this singing, though polyphonic singing really just captures my heart and makes me shut up.

There is something of complex systems in polyphony, where the rules run the show, but the show shifts on a dime.  As the fabric of variable voices erupts, I am rapt.  Albanian, sub-Sarahan, Georgian, Appalachian American, as I search polyphonic singing worldwide, I discover a unity denied people by the recent academic march against universality.  Yet, there it is, universal expression, evident for anyone who really wants to inquire.

Please check out the embedded links below, and last but not least, the bowling balls.  They co-join in spectacular, predictable paths, even through phases of relative chaos.

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