June 2015
Homeplace & Community

Everybody Sings ... the Sacred Harp Way

  Each of the 11 members of Kevin Eddins’ family have their own Sacred Harp book from which to learn and to sing. The Eddins’ family (from front left) are Ewan, age 7; Eric, 4; Eli, 13; Elam, 9; Ezra, 11; (back) Evie, 17; Ethan, 3; Kevin; Edith, 6; Dana; and Emily, 15.

Journeying along Judge Logue Road in Wicksburg on a late spring afternoon, motorists often hear the sound of music. But not the kind of music one might expect to be sung in rural Southeast Alabama. Not country music or gospel or even bluegrass. But what kind?

The Kevin Eddins family is the source of the music … Sacred Harp music.

Seated in their home on two facing sofas, a bench and a couple of chairs, everybody sings, all 11 of them. Actually, Ethan, age 3, doesn’t sing as much as he makes a joyful noise. The other 10 family members sing loudly and all mark the time of the music with upward and downward motions of the hand.

Sacred Harp music is powerful and harmonious American music that is uplifting, joyful and spiritual. The instruments played are the ones given at birth – the human voice.

It came to be the "official" music of the Eddins family via a rather unlikely route.

Kevin Eddins, a native of Van Cleve, Miss., said he always wanted to play music and sing, but, laughingly, admitted that "tone deaf" might best describe his ear for music. But, when he stumbled onto Sacred Harp singing in New Orleans, he was so fascinated by the unusual sound of the music, it mattered not that he was not an accomplished singer. He just wanted to learn to sing that old-time music.

Sacred Harp music is written in "shape notes." The head of each note has a shape that indicates the syllables fa, sol, la and mi, thus "shape note" or "fasola."

Sacred Harp music is sung a cappella and the singers alternate between singing the poetry and the notes.

That full-bodied, shout-it-out kind of singing touched Kevin’s heart and soul.

He said Sacred Harp music can’t be described with words. It has to be heard and, even then, it’s difficult to describe the harmonies of the four parts – treble, alto, tenor and bass.

"The music and the lyrics are somewhat masculine: strong, bold, dissonant, playful, boisterous and beautiful," Kevin said. "Sacred Harp singing is not a spectator sport. You can’t just listen to Sacred Harp music. You want to get ‘on the field.’"

Kevin said the tradition of Sacred Harp music came from a time when life was much simpler.

"It came from a time when people were not so easily distracted by electronics, entertainment and sports," he said. "Folks had to do more with less, but they made it a priority to gather with the community and worship God together."

As Kevin’s interest in and appreciation of Sacred Harp music magnified, he wanted his family to share the joy he found in singing the shapes.

"Every night, we have family worship time and I realized the singing of Sacred Harp music could be a wonderful and meaningful part of our worship time together," he said.

At first, the children weren’t into the old-time music. It was far from rock ‘n roll. And it took time and study to understand the music. But they caught on rather quickly and jumped right into the music, singing loud and long.

Eli, age 13, said Sacred Harp singing is loud, "but pretty and rich."

"It’s easy to catch onto and it’s easy to learn the shape names," he said.

Seven-year-old Ewan said singing with his family is fun and 6-year-old Edith also said that Sacred Harp music is "fun to sing."

Elam, 9, agreed that fasola singing is fun.

"And, it’s a good way to worship God," he added.

Mom Dana, also a newcomer to Sacred Harp singing, said Sacred Harp accomplished what shape-note singing was intended to do – teach singing for congregational worship.

"I appreciate getting to see and sing many of the lyrics that hymn writers like John Newton, Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley wrote that are rarely sung, but are profound in their simplicity," she said. "Sacred Harp singing is a part of our nightly family worship time and we all enjoy singing."

The Eddins’ family not only sings at home, they participate in Sacred Harp singings all across the Wiregrass and as far away as Huntsville.

At home, they don’t sit in the hollow square that is traditional with Sacred Harp sings. They sit all around the family room but, when they go to sings, they sit in the square.

Dana said the entire family enjoys going to sings.

"Sacred Harp sings are places where you can learn to sing and there is no spotlight or pressure to perform," she said. "You’re just singing and loving it and the time flies by. Many of the places we sing are like all of those quaint, old country churches you always wanted to step into, but never have. The place comes alive with the full voices and full hearts singing together to worship the eternal God."

Evie, 17, said nobody at the sings cares how good one’s voice is.

"They welcome new and inexperienced singers," she said. "They are glad you are there. I can’t express what an encouragement the singers have been to me over the past few years."

Emily, 15, said, the sings are a great time of fellowship.

"It is wonderful to be benefiting from the wisdom of the older people," she said.

Ewan said the singings are places where you can make new friends.

"And the food is very good," Elam said.

Kevin said, at the sings, there is enough simplicity for new singers to learn and enjoy, and enough complexity and variety for gifted singers to be challenged.

"Sacred Harp singing is attractive to us, as a family, for several reasons," he said. "It is not like anything modern. It is exciting to sing and we learn while we worship.

"Sacred Harp is a skill that will be useful for a lifetime and the community of people is beautiful.

"While I have horrible 1970s and 1980s music unwillingly stuck in my brain, my children will have hymns and songs of God’s saints resounding in their minds for the rest of their lives.

"People have said that Sacred Harp singing is our form of soccer. But unlike soccer, I believe our practice works toward spiritual maturity."

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.