Posted by Archive Registrar | Sat Sep 13th 2008 11:11 a.m.


If Beckett's ballooning structures represent a temporal and psychological entrapment that his protagonists wish to escape, the fugal structures of sacred harp singing create a kind of counterpoint - an eternal (albeit short-lived) experiential structure in which its participants wish to remain. Sacred harp 'singings' are all day events where singers sit in a four-sided square facing one another, each side representing a different harmony part. The singers take turns leading songs from the sacred harp hymnal, each song leader standing in the middle of the square for their turn. There is no real 'audience' (other than God and the other singers), and the optimal listening experience occurs in the middle of the square. The songs are often composed in fugal rounds, with each harmony part beginning halfway through a line and echoing the previous part - the lines successively accumulating on top of each other and then gradually receding, like waves on the shore. Although most sacred harp songs are short (few last longer than three minutes), during the singing itself, one feels (and hopes) that the song will go on forever. When asked his favorite song from the sacred harp tradition, one singer insightfully answered, “My favorite song is the one I'm singing.”

Like Beckett's plays, sacred harp singing is temporal and performative, but it is also more participatory and phenomenological. There is a multi-directional 'wall of sound' effect at a live sacred harp singing like a compound shellacking of tone. This simple fugue structure combined with an auditory experience of volume[tric] layering produces a kind of unhinging effect. Linear temporality is (temporarily) replaced by a kind of accreted ballooning that is neither simply looping nor simply linear. In this way sacred harp singing is akin to Beckett's quasi-looping plays. By piling up the same words and music successively (adding harmony upon harmony with every piling), sacred harp singing uses a simple scheme of structural transformation to achieve an undoing of linear time which opens onto a kind of ecstatic, 'heavenly' time-out-of-time. Whereas Beckett's characters cannot wait for their variable time to be up, sacred harp singers wish their variable time would never end (which is why the singings last all day).



Old Folks Day at Morning Star United Methodist Church in Canton, North Carolina

Date: 2nd Sunday in September
Time: 1:00 pm Eastern
Books: Christian Harmony
Contact: June Smathers-Jolley
Phone: (828) 648-4532

Quay Smathers started this singing. Preaching at 11, Dinner-on-the-Grounds at noon. This is not a "sitting in the square" singing; singers sit together in the choir seats.


Located southeast of Canton, which is west of Asheville, NC. From Interstate 40 take the exit for NC State Highway 215 south into Canton. Turn left, east, at US Highways 19, 23, & 74. First Union Bank will be on your left, and you'll turn right onto Academy and go up the hill. Follow the road as it curves and becomes Dutch Cove Rd. At the cemetery bear left. Continue for a mile or so. The church will be on the left.
  • Michael Szpakowski | Sat Sep 13th 2008 1:05 p.m.
    These are great! I love the collective conducting, and the way the whole thing lends itself to participation by all. A bit like stuff built on loops, the repetitive structure, either strophic or those tremendous canonic sheets of sound means that any "mistakes" or "mistunings" are simply subsumed into the overall glorious sound. It seems to be a tradition not unlike the village carols of my native South Yorkshire:
  • Michael Szpakowski | Sun Sep 14th 2008 4:51 a.m.
    At the outdoor camp-meeting services in Redding all the farmers, their families, field hands and friends for miles around would come afoot or in their farm wagons. I remember how the great waves of sound used to come through the trees when things like ‘Beulah Land’, ‘Woodworth’, ‘Nearer My God to Thee’, ‘The Shining Shore’, ‘Nettleton’, ‘In the Sweet Bye-and-Bye’, and the like , were sung by thousands of ‘let-out’ souls. The music notes and words on paper are about as much like what they were at those moments as the monogram on a man’s necktie may be like his face. Father, who led the singing, sometimes with his cornet or his voice, sometimes with both voice and arms, and sometimes in the quieter hymns with a violin or French horn, would always encourage the people to sing their own way. Most of them knew the words and music (their version) by heart and sang it that way. If they threw the poet or composer around a bit, so much the better for the poetry or the music. There was power and exaltation in these great conclaves of sound from humanity.
    Once when father was asked: “How can you stand it to hear old John Bell ( who was the best stonemason in town) bellow off key the way he does at camp-meetings?” his answer was “Old John is a supreme musician. Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds. If you do you may miss the music. You won’t get a heroic ride to Heaven on pretty little sounds!”

    Charles Ives, quoted in Henry and Sidney Cowell : ‘Charles Ives and his music’ OUP 1955
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