Inside a large meeting room in a modern Christian church in Columbia, several women and one man arrange folding metal chairs facing inward in a square. Amid laughter and animated chatter, they face each other and open oblong books. The man calls out a number. The singers ripple the book to page 47 and the hymn “Primrose.”
A piercing song leaps from the tongues of those gathered. Twice monthly, the Columbia Shape Note Singers come together to sing music from “The Sacred Harp” songbook at Trinity Presbyterian Church. The group gives voice to Christian hymns in four-part harmony written in “shape-note notation.” It’s music from 18th and 19th century America.
Altos, who are usually women, sit on one side of the square. Men and women sing tenor and soprano and sit on their respective sides. Tenors carry the melody. More often than not, men sing bass and occupy the fourth side.
Lou Kujawinski chooses a song — the bottom of page 503, “Lloyd.” The lyrics were written in 1719. He pitches the hymn with his voice. Instruments, accompaniment and pitch pipes have no place in shape-note singing. Participants diligently try to sing in tune with each other.
Lou’s voice hits too low. He tries again and the singing takes off.
“It’s a power thing,” Mary Barile, a shape-note singer, says, joking. “You can have an entire chorus following you and they’re cheerful about it.”
Arms wave up and down, marking the beat. Cherry Hinderberger sways her body slightly backward and forward, tapping her toes.
Group founder Wendy Hofmann closes her eyes and throws her chin up and back as her hand pushes space in front of her and retreats toward her body, keeping the rhythm of the hymn. Hofmann first heard “Sacred Harp” music on a PBS television program when a group sang “Amazing Grace.”
“They sang their starting pitches, which is a wonderful thing, you know, to be able to sing your starting pitch before you launch into a song,” says Hofmann.
Shari Schubert selects the next tune — “Northfield” on page 155. Her pitch is not right, either. Schubert laughs, and the rest of the group chuckles with her.
“I’ve noticed with this group that no one stands up and gives you a lecture on what you’re doing wrong or why this is incorrect,” says Barile. “Everyone gets a say in what we sing. It’s very inclusive.”
As a prelude to each hymn, the group sings the syllables reflecting the notes of the hymn to acquaint them with the song. In the 1700s, traveling song leaders instructed singers in the musical scale recorded in notes of “fa sol la fa sol la mi fa.” Sometime later, to facilitate sight-reading, a shape was designated to represent each of the four syllables. A triangle indicated “fa”, a circle showed “sol”, a rectangle represented “la” and a diamond pointed to “mi.”
Together, the harmonies make an unvarnished and sweet sound.
“The harmonies get you in the heart and the soul,” says Hofmann.
She describes the tones as a kind of bluegrass-Renaissance and hollow. The beat is pronounced. Barile uses “vibrant” and “raucous-sounding” to convey her sense of the spirited music. The hymns are intended to be sung and not performed for an audience.
Barile remarks that many hymns are taken from the Book of Psalms found in the Old Testament of the Bible. All the songs are deeply spiritual in meaning. Bible verses are cited below each hymn title in “The Sacred Harp” songbook.
The lyrics make an impact upon Kujawinski.
“I don’t consider myself a very religious person,” he says. “I do think it’s expanded my feelings toward recognition of those that are tied to strong religious institutions. It’s also made me increase my feelings toward a higher spiritual feeling even though it’s not a specific type of religion.”
Barile comments upon the relationship of the music to the lyrics. “The harmonies are very sophisticated,” she says. “Often, the music is connected directly to the text.”
She gives examples: “You might have something about a ‘leaping heart’ and the music is moving up the scale. Or ‘going down to the depths of hell’ and the music is moving downward.”
Though Christian in origin, Sacred Harp hymns can speak to those of varying belief systems.
“For some people this is a very sacred thing, that God is in the open square,” says eight-year Sacred Harp singer Penny Kujawinski. “For me, it is a spirit that is in everything that we see, in all of us.”
Hofmann views the lyrics as “very sacred, but I interpret them as how I understand my spiritual views.” She is a self-described Quaker-Buddhist, basing her life on kindness.
Hofmann sees Jesus as an embodiment of goodness. “He looked after people who were not high on anyone’s list to look after,” she says. It’s simple for her to connect Jesus with Buddhist teachings about kindness. “I have no trouble singing about Jesus even though I’m not a follower of Jesus the way other people might be.”
Barile was raised a Roman Catholic. She has participated in Buddhist, Jewish, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Methodist worship with friends and does not practice any particular faith. “I believe in grace and forgiveness and humor,” she says. She laughs. “Some of these hymns have a lot of humor.”
Barile values the common ground she finds in Sacred Harp music.
“What I like about it is that when you get a group of people singing shape notes and selecting certain hymns and the texts, it doesn’t really matter which way you follow,” she says. “It’s a sharing of joy, or sadness or sorrow or hope, redemption. These are the themes that come across in many of the hymns. That cuts across any religious boundaries.”
Hofmann expands on this concept. “It’s easy to take sacred words and see sort of a deeper meaning in them rather than a literal meaning,” she says. “A lot of songs that people like must reach them on many different levels.”
Hofmann values the freedom of “Sacred Harp” music. “I don’t even have to believe in a god. I’m open-minded — there may be one,” she says. “To praise God, to me, is to live a life of kindness and goodness and trying your darnedest to make a good place here on earth.”
Her perspective is: “If there’s something out there, I’m praising it. If there’s not, I’m praising the existence of kindness in this world.”
Penny Kujawinski knows many of the songs the group sings very well. This familiarity releases her to greater enjoyment.
“Once you get to the point where you’re just singing and maybe you don’t have to look at the book, you know the words, you know the melody, you can just sing it and hear it, that’s really the best part,” she says. “You’re leaving the act of singing while you’re doing it, you’re past it.”
She enthusiastically describes the power of the voices raising up a “Sacred Harp” standard.
“There is a sense of the spirit, I think, especially when you’re singing for hours at a big sing,” she says. “It’s almost an out-of-body experience.”