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The Art of Sacred Harp Singing

Published on Nov 25, 2019

Sacred Harp singing has entertained communities and fellowship gatherings for generations without the use of a single instrument, other than the human voice. And now, this unique style of music, also known as shape note music, will be performed through a collaboration of the Polk County History Center and Bartow’s Orpheum Theatre.

The Central Florida Shape Note Music event will be held on Sept. 28 at the History Center, 100 E. Main St. in Bartow. The event is free and open to the public.

Activities also will include educational workshops and plenty of moments to practice shape note singing. The origins for this style of music go back centuries, first in England and then spreading to colonial New England. From there, it spread throughout the American South where it established its cultural roots.

In the rural south, shape note singings were all-day events and brought people together who often lived miles apart. These events were a time for fellowship, with the traditional dinner-on-the-grounds potluck dinner and the sing.

The term shape note derives from the musical note heads printed as four distinct shapes. These shapes represent only four notes – Fa, Sol, La, Mi – and are used to make sight-reading of music easier for beginner singers. Singers sit facing each other, forming a hollow square, with four sections, each section singing a part – treble, alto, tenor and bass.

Unlike a traditional choir, there is no single director or conductor. Singers take turns leading the group from the middle of the square with an up and down motion of the forearm to keep the tempo. After choosing a hymn, the members begin by singing the appropriate notes using Fa, Sol, La and Mi before replacing the notes with the lyrics of the song.

Within the last 30 years, there has been a resurgence of shape note music across the U.S., with several organizations dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of Sacred Harp singing and its traditions.

In the local area, each fifth Sunday, the Sacred Harp Singers of the Bethlehem Primitive Baptist Church at Old Chicora, gather to practice this tradition. Although the church incorporated in 1871, the Sacred Harp Singers did not officially become a staple of the church until May 1924.

The Polk County History Center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at 100 E. Main St. in Bartow. Visit the History Center or call (863) 534-4386 for more information on exhibits and programming.