In Zora Neale Hurtston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie describes the moment she falls out of love with her second husband by saying,
Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just some thing she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further.
While it’s nothing so dramatic as all that, it is the only way I can think to describe how I feel about church music right now. Corporate worship, as I have always known it, has fallen off a shelf inside me.
I’m not judging, casting blame, or saying one form is superior to another. If you’ve found a way to worship that connects you to God, I applaud you. Keep singing, playing, clapping, or banging a tambourine for all you’re worth. But with regards to the “worship wars,” I can’t muster the strength to choose a side any more. The argument has left me hollowed out and deflated. No matter the packaging or presentation, all worship feels consumption-based to me right now. It’s all well-manicured voices, sterile words on a screen, and a congregation that just follows along. No matter what church I go to, worship feels too big. Too glossy. Too plastic. To my ears, it’s shiny sound without a soul. I don’t know why.
But it makes me ache.
I’m hungry for something authentic, something real and raw and unmistakable. I want to worship in a way that is focused on devotion, not performance. For too long, I’ve just accepted it. I’ve told myself, “This is just the way it is now.” But still, I find myself longing to lift my voice, my hands, and my eyes to God in the middle of a group–not in front of them or in lockstep behind someone else telling me what to feel.
Maybe that’s why the tradition known as Sacred Harp singing appeals to me so much. It’s certainty different from much of what I’m used to. For one, politics and denomination wars are not allowed inside the house, and part of me rejoices at that.
Another thing I admire is that despite its long tradition, the music remains relatively unchanged. As you can see by the picture I took, it uses shape notes. And what’s even better is that everyone sings. With gusto and in harmony. And while the pitch is relative, it always seems to work out. One doesn’t “lead” per se. The person who directs stands in the “hollow square,” as they call it, keeps the tempo and cues when necessary, and everyone has a chance to lead at least once. Also, this isn’t a service in the traditional sense. There is no preaching like there is on Sunday morning, just music. It’s something many of the participants do in addition to the activities at their church.
I’m still in the first stages of learning about this interesting community of musicians, but after having participated in one singing, I can honestly say that they are passionate, about the music if nothing else. Some of the people I met were lifelong Christians–everything from Primitive Baptists to high church Anglicans. I also shared dinner on the grounds with a woman who openly declared, “I’m not religious.” But there was something she loved about the music, perhaps the gritty realness of it, that kept her coming to participate. If that diverse a group can get over themselves to sing, there must be something to it. And I intend to find out what it is.
I’ve begun my research into the history of this musical style and it’s people with several resources. The first is a comprehensive historical work called The Makers of the Sacred Harp by David Warren Steel and Richard H. Hulan. Hopefully, it will explain the origins of the songbook, how the music is composed, and all the other technical aspects I want to learn about. And for a more sociological piece exploring the diverse community, I’m diving into I Belong to This Band, Hallelujah!: Community, Spirituality, and Tradition among Sacred Harp Singers by Laura Clawson.
I’ve also procured a copy of a documentary two Sacred Harp singers recently produced titled Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, which looks to be a treasure trove of stories and sound. And I am the happy, proud owner of a copy of The Sacred Harp hymnal, which I hope to be able to study in detail as I learn about how the songs in it have been composed and their respective histories.
Part of this exploration is because, well, I’m happiest with my nose in a book. A researcher by nature, I find the answers to a great many questions I have by taking the longitudinal view of things and combing through what has already been said. The answer is usually somewhere in the middle.
The other reason is because I’m hoping to put down roots somewhere. I’m tired of shallow worship and simple faith. I’m desperate for something I can’t yet define. Sacred Harp very well may not be it. I’m well aware of this. I know that no system of worship, no matter how “right” it is, can be a substitute for God and a relationship with Him. But I’ve been stirred. Something in me has been overturned, and my soul is disquieted. It’s time to go wandering, to be a pilgrim again. The answers are somewhere I’m not, so I go to suss them out.
Here’s a brief video I shot on my iPhone at the singing I attended. There are much better ones out there, ones with better video and sound quality, but I wanted to share a little of what I experienced that afternoon.