This collection of Sacred Harp singing is the first to offer a full range of recordings by traditional Sacred Harp singers from 1922 to the present, and is a companion to the Sacred Harp documentary by Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, the first feature documentary about Sacred Harp singing. This CD is unique in a number of respects. It contains several prewar and mid-century recordings never before released on CD, some of which have never been released at all. Sacred Harp singing is typically a community musical and social event, held at all-day singings and conventions in the rural South. It is characterized by mass participation, full-voiced singing, lack of instrumental accompaniment, and rotation of song leaders. Growing out of the singing-school movement of the 18th century, and preserving the music of the first American composers, it came to be associated in the deep South with church and community homecomings and decoration days, and with sumptuous "dinner on the ground" spread in the churchyard at noon. It differs from shape-note gospel singing in that the repertory is largely pre-Civil War, and is relatively fixed in one of the 20th-century revisions of the original 1844 oblong tunebook by B. F. White and E. J. King. Although The Sacred Harp was called "the book oftenest found in the homes of rural Southerners other than the Holy Bible," the tradition was ignored by the cultural elites of the nation and region. For 85 years, commercial record producers and documentary folklorists have tried to capture this "harmonic complex of singular charm," as Jackson described it. Surprisingly, though, the earliest recordings differ sharply from the powerful sounds heard at today's singings. Many reflect the more informal uses of Sacred Harp music in the family circle, while others show the influence of professional gospel quartet singing. Displaying a wide range of ensembles and vocal styles, this release includes recordings of quartets and other groups who recorded for major record labels before World War II, private studio recordings of the 1950s and 1960s, and digital field recordings of large contemporary singing. This collection also weaves three important strands of this music: early commercial recordings, cut on 78s in the 1920s through the 1940s, home recordings made by small groups of singers in the 1950s, and contemporary "all day sacred harp singings." The very fact that these separate strands appear together here on one CD is part of what makes this collection so unique, yet the historical breadth of the material is also noteworthy. Cardboard arigato pak with 16-page saddle-stitched booklet.
Despite a momentary flash of national exposure when its plain, hearty choruses were heard on the T-Bone Burnett-produced Cold Mountain soundtrack, sacred harp music never turned into the next NPR-approved genre for grown-ups--unlike the pre-Castro Cuban fare of the Buena Vista Social Club or the bluegrass vogue that followed O Brother, Where Art Thou? (also nurtured by Burnett). It's just too raw and gnarly, and you certainly can't dance to it. But its unrefined power has been a mainstay in the lives of many Southerners (and many others) since long before the Civil War. -- Time Out Chicago, Dec 14, 2006, Steve Dollar
Maybe the very best thing about shape-note singing is the croaky, full-body hollers the form demands; because the end result is one voice, shape-note singers don't worry so much about tone and pitch, bellowing and shouting with big, unabashed confidence. I Belong to This Band coughs up some appropriately stellar performances... -- Pitchfork, January 16, 2007, Amanda Petrusich
Most anything, even a tune called "Save, Lord, or We Parish," sounds more awesome when hollered by a room full of people. Indie rock's glee club (hello Sufjan) could learn a lot from this. -- Spin, March 2007, Will Hermes
To quote Leonard Cohen, 'God is alive, magic is afoot' in the soaring magnificence of Southern sacred-harp choirs, a robust, harmonically intricate blend of country joy and unearthly drone. It is living worship, too. -- Rolling Stone, February 8, 2007, David Fricke