Songs for the soul

By Cody Ellerd

A page number is called out, a pitch is sounded, and the strange-looking notes suddenly leap off the page as the room erupts into song. The sound is huge, slightly eerie. The four-part harmony travels the square of singers in a flawless round, invoking a sense of passion and perfection.

``I think that was the first time we've done that one,'' a singer remarks.

This peculiar music traditionally existed in colonial New England and the Baptist and Methodist churches of the American South, but on this Sunday night it is being kept alive on Mercer Island by the Pacific Northwest Sacred Harp Singers.

This is not a practice because there are never any performances. If you're there, you're not watching -- you're singing.

``This music exists for us -- for us!'' says Joanne Volberding, a Mercer Island resident who has been attending weekly singings around the Seattle area for 11 years. The group has used the resonant space of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church Social Room for the last two years.

The music has Christian roots and words, but the Northwest group includes everyone from atheists to Wiccans.

``As a Buddhist it's always felt very welcoming,'' said Jordan Singer of Ballard. ``The words are very fire and brimstone, and everyone deals with that in their own way. People find their own meaning.''

When the question is posed of the group's religious makeup, the room tenses.

``That's the first time that's been asked here,'' a singer tentatively explains. ``We leave our politics and religion at the door.''

Sacred Harp singing developed in colonial America in the mid-1700s as a remedy to the apparently awful church singing that was plaguing congregations in which many didn't read music. Itinerant singing masters traveling from town to town would set up temporary schools, where they used a simplified form of written music that used shapes to instruct those without formal training.

Traditional hymns combined with the teachers' original compositions began to be compiled into books, and a system took hold that assigned shapes -- triangles, ovals, rectangles and diamonds -- to the corresponding notes of fa, sol, la and mi, respectively. Eventually one songbook called ``The Sacred Harp'' emerged as the standard volume; it has been in continuous publication since 1844. The style of singing also became known as shape note singing.

Though it spread from New England, the South is where Sacred Harp singing really took root. It was raw, blustery and employed nothing but the human voice and fervent religiosity that powered it.

The 1800s saw a return to musical sophistication and the advent of the piano spread a taste for sweeter sounds. Shape note singing, which, considering its remedial roots, can be ironically quite harsh on the ears, was largely edged out by choirs and church organs. But for many rural Southern churches, such accoutrements remained out of reach and shape note singing still rang out.

The folk revival of the 1950s and 60s revived interest in shape note singing. The 2003 film ``Cold Mountain,'' which featured rousing and haunting performances of Sacred Harp songs, also piqued curiosity. Volberding said a distinct divide exists now between the Southerners for whom Sacred Harp singing remains a religious tradition and those who approach it from a more academic perspective.

``But if you love this music then you're in the family,'' she said, adding that Southerners will welcome anyone into their singing circles regardless of their motivation.

The 71-year-old retired physician was first exposed to it nearly 30 years ago, when she heard it on the radio and then picked up a Library of Congress recording. It stirred something in her, and she sent away for a book of shape note music from a publishing company listed on the album's back cover. The book arrived with a note requesting $6.50 and offering the name of a Sacred Harp singer in Seattle. Volberding tried, but she was never able to find him and her pursuit of shape note singing went dormant for the next 10 years.

Shortly after her husband died in 1994, Volberding met an acquaintance at Emmanuel Episcopal Church who mentioned an unusual type of religious singing she did with a group in Seattle. Volberding had finally found the shape note singers she had sought all those years ago.

``I didn't know who they were and I didn't care if I hated them,'' she said. ``I just wanted to sing!''

Sacred Harp singing entered her life at the perfect time, Volberding said, helping her with her grief over the loss of her husband. As if revealing a special secret, Volberding quietly adds, ``it was a gift.''

Several times each month, the 50-strong group holds singings, which are still called ``lessons'' from the early New England days. The members meet in Seattle, West Seattle, Puyallup and on Lopez and Mercer Islands in area churches and homes. They go caroling during the holidays, and many singers attend regional all-day singing sessions, and even national conventions in the South that have attracted nearly 500 people. The rule at those, said Volberding, is that ``if you can hear your neighbor, you're not singing loud enough.'' She goes home with her ears ringing for days.

Even at the local weekly singings, the enthusiasm can be deafening. The group includes singers some members describe as ``paint-peelers.'' Regardless of the volume of their voices, it seems that everyone has something to say about how much they love this music. Raw, traditional, historical, welcoming, ugly and beautiful -- for them it is perfection.

Sacred Harp singing information

The Pacific Northwest Sacred Harp Singers meet the fourth Sunday of each month from 3-5 p.m. in the social room of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 4400 86th Ave. S.E. Anyone is welcome to attend. More information about this and other area gatherings can be found at their Web site,

A wealth of background information and resources on shape note singing is available at To hear recordings of this style of singing broadcast by WFMU in New Jersey, please go to the Web site

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