Sacred Harp on BBC
Early music, for which we’d formed a fondness bordering on fanaticism, didn’t seem to be among the cultural offerings of Zion. And while Mac Christensen, the president of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, was a cherished yokefellow in the sealing office of the Bountiful Temple, and while he always saw to it that his fellow sealers were supplied with tickets to the ever-hugely-oversubscribed Christmas concerts of his eminent organization, somehow we still nursed a chronic sense of musical deprivation.

While Chankly was a-building in 2003, we were recruited to a performing group called the Mountain Chorale and took part in their concertizing to the point of investing in a pair of tuxedo pants. Our fellow singers were a pleasant bunch, but we didn’t really find their repertoire nourishing, in the manner to which we had become accustomed. So, when we settled down in Davis County, our connection to them languished pretty quickly. And it was some years before we encountered the Utah Sacred Harp fellowship and learned that this remote part of the world is still home to musical experiences of an intensity comparable to what we’d become accustomed to.

If “Sacred Harp” is an alien concept to you, just let me note that the Sacred Harp is the human voice. It’s also several collections of devotional songs, notated in “shape-notes,” that have been part of rural church music, largely but not exclusively in the American South since before our Revolution. As a musical tradition, it has rather remote roots in England, dating back to days when we were English.

I had already become a passionate partisan of the music of William Billings of Boston, a patriot friend of Paul Revere, some of whose work is to be found in the Sacred Harp volumes. As Arlington Ward choir director, I tried harder to incorporate his music into our repertoire than some would have preferred. Back in Bicentennial times, I’d invested in a complete set of Billings which I’ve since bequeathed to Rick.

Sacred Harp music is sung a cappella, seated in a square, and in a manner I’ve heard described as “singing all the way from your toes.” Typically, each number is sung once through without words, in fa-sol-la style, then with vigor through as many verses as participants may agree upon. Rather than try to explain the whole concept, let me link you to a half-hour BBC broadcast that does a better job than I could:
Sacred Harp
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