Sacred harp is a type of music performed by the simplest and possibly the most beautiful of musical instruments: the human voice.
It’s a historic form of community singing, explains Gayla Bradberry, sung in an austere, a cappella style, with its roots in America’s Colonial period.
“It was very common up until about the time of the Civil War and then it went away except for some pockets of singers in the rural South,” said Bradberry, who has initiated a monthly sacred harp gathering in Billings.
Sacred Harp Singing meets the third Sunday of every month at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church. It is open to everybody, whether they belong to the church or are more focused on singing than faith.
When Bradberry was a little girl, her church did something similar to the type of shape-note singing involved in sacred harp. She was introduced to it again watching the 2003 Civil War movie “Cold Mountain,” where it was on display.
“This is a perfect hobby for me,” Bradberry said. “I was a history major, so all this history stuff is fascinating. Then, I’m a musician.”
Bradberry retired two years ago after playing violin in the Billings Symphony for 27 years. While symphonic performances require practice and polish, sacred harp has a much rougher, more homespun style.
Named for a hymn book, this type of singing goes all the way back to the 1700s. In those days, people who attended churches didn’t have a lot of education, Bradberry said.
To teach congregants music, singing schools used a notation system in their hymnals in which they gave each note a shape, a triangle, an oval, a square and a diamond. Each represents a musical syllable: fa, sol, la and mi.
Most people understand the concept, Bradberry said, when sacred harp is compared to the song “Do-Re-Mi,” from the movie “The Sound of Music.” The difference is that song uses seven syllables, while sacred harp uses only four.
“It’s a way of reading music,” Bradberry said, “It’s like learning words to a song. If you know syllables of a song, you can figure out how it goes even if it’s new.”
In sacred harp, singers practice the song’s tune the first time by singing the syllables, instead of the words. Then they add the words.
And unlike newer, more sentimental hymns, the words in these songs reflect the theology of that age. Lyrics tended to be dark, not optimistic — about hell fire and damnation — about death in an age where people often had to face loss.
Bradberry jokes that in Billings, after the group sings, “we have to eat jelly beans to get over that.”
But the songs also can be very meaningful. And there are many of them.
She and a friend went to a sacred harp convention a year ago in Denver. They learned some sacred harp history on Friday and then on Saturday they started singing at 9 a.m.
“I had to quit at 1 or 2 in the afternoon because my voice gave out,” Bradberry said. “They kept singing, and then on Sunday they sang most of the day.”
She sang 120 hymns that weekend, and though she is familiar with many hymns, she only knew three of the songs sung that weekend.
The style of singing is at full throttle with little nuance, which Bradberry admits isn’t her favorite way to sing. But overall, she called it “a rich experience,” blending a cappella in four-part harmonies.
The singers sit in a hollow square, with one person standing in the middle to lead the group. Each of the four sides has a section of singers: treble, alto, tenor and bass.
“It’s beautiful because it’s very participatory; it’s not for performance,” Bradberry said. “We just sit and sing to each other. No (quality of) voice is required, no auditions, no applause. It’s just singing for the joy of singing.”
Although sacred harp was established in the American colonies, as they got more established and wealthy they imported organs and other instruments and moved away from the a cappella style.
In the meantime, the singing schools which taught sacred harp migrated to the South, where that style of singing struck a chord and remains popular today. Sacred harp has caught the imagination of a younger generation who enjoy it for the music, not necessarily the spirituality, and it has spread around the world.
“People are fascinated with it and they are going back in time to make things authentic rather than progressive,” Bradberry said.
Daisy Eddy, a member of St. Andrew, said her daughter, Karen, spent five years at a college in North Carolina where sacred harp was common.
“It’s an amazing sound when you get enough people together who know what they’re doing,” Eddy said. “And it just intrigued me.”
When she and her daughter learned that Bradberry was starting a group in Billings, the pair decided to join in. It’s her first time actually taking part.
Eddy likes that it’s for everyone, not just the best of singers.
“The Lord says make a joyful noise,” Eddy said. “You give it your all, and you realize you’re relaxed and peaceful when you’re done.”