We have gathered together to sing about death. The sun shines through the windows of the Providence Friends Meetinghouse, brightening the spare and spacious room. Four sections of pews face inward, forming a square: about a hundred people sit in the pews, and I stand in the center. In one hand, I hold my copy of The Sacred Harp, a collection of choral songs for four parts. I beat my other hand quickly up and down, keeping time, leading the group in song:
My thoughts that often mount the skies
Go search the world beneath,
Where nature all in ruin lies,
And owns her sov'reign—Death!
We are singing words written in 1707 by Isaac Watts, a prominent and prolific English hymn writer. This hymn’s text invites the pious singer, whose mind usually meditates on lofty, divine matters, to turn her gaze down and survey the created world. She finds a material world, utterly in thrall to Death—"owning" used here in the archaic sense, acknowledging the supremacy of something over oneself.
In 1785, Daniel Read, a New England composer, set Watts' words to a tune he called "Calvary," the tune which I have decided to lead today. As with most hymns of this period, the text and tune were composed independently of each other, and are interchangeable with other hymns written in the same meter. Despite the grim outlook of Watts' text, Read's tune is fast-paced, exciting, even lively. The parts begin at different times, sing the words with different rhythms. There is a "fuguing" section in which each part has its own entrance, each a bar apart, stacking upon the part before it. The basses enter to my right, the tenors in front of me, the altos behind me, and finally the trebles to my left—only to come back together for the final line: "And owns, and owns her sov'reign—Death!" As we come hurtling toward the final ending, I note the folks around me: old, young, friends, strangers. Most singers, familiar with the song, look up from their books; several clutch closed books tightly, sit on the edge of the bench, and send their song up and forward at the same time.
And then we arrive at "Death." I stop beating time, hold my palm up, and smile widely to those who have arrived. I relish in the silence for a short second, then take my seat in the tenor section. Some new shepherd will guide the flock through the land of deepest shade.
Originally published in 1844, the present 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp, the fourth major revision of the text, contains more than 500 pages of songs in four parts. Most of the songs are old American tunes, the oldest of which comes from the New England singing schools of the 18th century. But The Sacred Harp and its accompanying singing tradition originated in the rural South where it has survived to this day. Only in the last few decades has the tradition spread from its ancestral homeland, not only northwards to its proto-home, but to regions of the country (and world) with no historical relationship to the tradition: Los Angeles, Cork, Bremen.
The Sacred Harp uses early 19th century shape notation shape notation: instead of round heads, shape notes have a triangle, circle, rectangle, or diamond for their heads. These correspond to four solfège syllables, Fa, Sol, La, and Mi. By indicating relative pitch, shapes allow songs to be sung at any key, and also facilitate sight-reading for those not trained in music. At a singing, the group sings the names of the notes to get a sense of the tune before proceeding to sing the words. In its very design, shape note singing brings a community together as equals. This is not a performance mode. Talent is not privileged. Neither is experience: shape notes are a didactic device; a group of singers is called a school. The emphasis is on learning: learning by doing, learning by doing together.
Why should we start and fear to die?
What tim’rous worms we mortals are!
Death is the gate to endless joy,
And yet we dread to enter there.
Most songs in The Sacred Harp treat death in some way. Some celebrate zealous yearning for heaven's ease, others provide comfort and counsel to the soul, fearful in the face her own mortality, or grieving the loss of a friend. Although the tradition has its roots in American Protestantism, and although the language is often distinctly Christian, the appeal to human mortality extends beyond the boundaries of religion. Everybody dies. Sometimes death seems nearer, more present. Amidst the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Sacred Harp gained a large following among gay men, who found themselves suddenly confronted with the death of friends, and their own mortality:
Jesus can make a dying bed
Feel soft as downy pillows are;
While on His breast I lean my head,
And breathe my life out sweetly there.
Death could become a sweet, welcome sleep in the gentle embrace of a male savior figure.
Whether palpable or seemingly distant, death's imminence is unmeasurable, its inevitability unquestionable:
Our life is ever on the wing,
And death is ever nigh;
The moment when our lives begin,
We all begin to die.
We are all already, always moving towards death. We all die, but Sacred Harp singing would have us focus on the subject and not the verb: we all die. By singing about death together, we acknowledge our fundamental commonality. Apparent difference is blurred in the presence of equalizing death: old-timers beat rhythm with arthritic hands beside punks with stick-and-poke arms; facial piercings, like cross necklaces, are simply the ornaments of choice.
The Sacred Harp works as a guidebook for harmonizing our private songs with those of our neighbors to generate something beyond us, but dependent upon us all the same. Harmony as a metaphor for community reaches a pinnacle in the physical layout, the demographic makeup, and the lyrical content of Sacred Harp singing.
We are all already always singing our own songs towards death. In the center of the square, I feel the sheer force of harmonious song—a hundred voices assailing me on all sides. It is violent, fierce, but I absorb it. Mortality is only in individual bodies, I realize, in individual song. But this song…
ELI PETZOLD B’14 doesn’t care to stay here long