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.



What drives mankind to pursue auto-iconography, sometimes to absurd lengths, such as the departed Michael Jackson who developed a plastic caricature of himself, a perfect and yet strangely alien face, framed by a few wispy, well-oiled curls?  Is it the pursuit of eternality in the eyes of the beholders that so motivates the auto-iconographer?

This is an apt question in the age of the Internet where anyone can fabricate an auto-icon, effectively substituting the perceived self for icons of the relic-littered past.  The iconoclast of the Twentieth Century has morphed into the auto-iconographer of the Twenty-First Century, and the auto-icon is often iterative for money and for glory.

When it comes to follies, nothing new has been created under the sun, so we can find plenty of historical precedents for comparable self-glorification—even ghastly auto-icons, such as the one Jeremy Bentham envisioned for his post-mortem glorification in the name of “science.”

The denser the self-absorption, the more grotesque the auto-icon is, at times otherworldly in its mendacity towards the common man, if not for simply saying: “Here I am, take a look.”  When I take a quick look at Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon, forever indwelling the Internet with its rich and storied past, I see a severed and shrunken head, but since the body could not be preserved over the long haul, I can only link to a waxen auto-icon, sans brains:

Since Bentham is the father of Utilitarianism, his head is his important part, for it is a storehouse of remnant intellectual brilliance—those glass eyes can’t do it justice.  Father of voyeurism; arbiter of pleasure and pain; minister of indirect, diffuse control; shape-shifter of the moral code, Jeremy Bentham’s philosophies and practices interweave with ideas and practices of institutions today.  At a minimum, his auto-icon intimidates me because it reminds me that I never had a head for calculus, but I’m afraid Jeremy Bentham didn’t either.


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