Ask the enthusiasts of the over 200-year-old spiritual choral music style known as Sacred Harp about their favorite song, and the conversation quickly becomes as esoteric as Deadheads discussing their favorite live version of “Dark Star.”
“I really like '181,'” says Thom Fahrbach, a doctor with a passion for singing that borders on junkie levels. “It’s called ‘Exit,’ and it’s about the end of life. If it’s sung at a nice brisk pace, it is really exciting.”
Marie Brandis, an assistant to a Multnomah County judge, chooses the more funereal “Phillips Farewell.” “It’s very challenging,” she says, “I’ve also been leaning towards '422' a lot.”
“‘Burdette!'” Fahrbach says excitedly. “I’ve been noticing you calling for that one lately”
I’m sitting with Fahrbach, Brandis and fellow vocalist Jessica Beer in the upstairs lounge at Beech Street Parlor, sipping warm cocktails on a cold evening. All three are regular attendees of Portland Sacred Harp singings, to the point where they can call their favorite songs out by page number rather than title.
“It changes all the time,” says Beer, an alto and administrative manager who has been part of the PSH community for about a decade. “Right now, I’d say '278' on the top. ‘Love Shall Never Die.’ Someone made me a needlepoint of with the first line of that song, ‘Long have I sat beneath the sound.’”
All of the songs they mentioned are part of The Sacred Harp, first published in 1844 and revised about six times since, that compiles over 400 spirituals into one weighty volume. And, like a hymnal, the songs are all given a corresponding number in the book (when Beer says “on the top,” she’s referring to a page that has two songs printed it on it, one above the other).
The Portland Sacred Harp singers are keeping alive a folk music tradition that evolved out of English church culture and ended up taking root in the Southern and Northeastern U.S. And, apart from some of the songs and the places where the local sacred harp community meets (the majority of their monthly meetings happen at either Kennedy School or People’s Co-op), everything else is exactly as it was in the 1800s.
The singers group themselves according to their vocal range, with everyone circled around a square space in the center of the room. Into that square steps one person who chooses the song. After setting the pitch, the group runs through the song once, using “fa-so-la-ti” tones rather than the words. Then, they sing the song with the lyrics. That song leader sits down and another gets up to call a new song. Then another, and another, and so on.
At least that's the way the Portland Sacred Harp group handles things now. When it all began some 28 years ago, it was Brandis and a group of friends gathering in their living rooms when they had free time and singing some songs.
"Then we got discovered by someone," Brandis recalls, "and she said we were doing it all wrong." This helpful soul brought them to a singing school in Seattle where they learned to sight read the music and the routines of a proper Sacred Harp session. Since then, the Portland community has grown to the point that some months, they hold up to eight singings.
"As we have built it, people have come," says Beer. "We started with three monthly singings, and each one has grown in size and intensity, so we've had to add more."
There are few corollaries that can be used to aptly describe the Sacred Harp sound. There’s a hint of Pentecostal gospel in the mix (“Amazing Grace” is one of the songs in the book), a bit of medieval polyphonic chant, and the twang of early folk-blues. But with all four parts going at once, melodies weaving and bouncing off each other, the feeling is thunderous and soul-shaking.
I’m not alone in that sensation. Nathan Salsburg, the archivist and curator for the vast collection of field recordings made by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, described his first experience hearing sacred harp singing as “unlike anything I had ever heard before. I had no context for it, and it worked on me—a non-believer—pretty hard.”
Salsburg recently helped compile some of the first stereo recordings of a sacred harp singing, captured by Lomax in Fyffe, Ala., back in 1959, for a digital release on Global Jukebox, and for a vinyl edition out on local imprint Mississippi Records.
The tracks heard on United Sacred Harp Convention: The Alan Lomax Recordings, 1959 were taken from two full days of recording done as part of the titular gathering of singers. They would go through song after song after song for hours, only taking a break for a huge potluck dinner. And even though some of the impact gets lost in translation—as well as the occasional distraction like some rumbling that happens on the final song as Lomax made microphone adjustments—the power of the choral experience is staggering.
Portland Sacred Harp meetings don’t go on for nearly as long, usually only last two hours unless the spirit strikes them. Though when a group of about 40 people met recently at the Waverly Heights Congregational United Church of Christ in SE Portland for a singing, there was much discussion about a convention happening near Seattle soon.
The local group skews older—most singers are pushing or beyond middle age—with a few twentysomethings sprinkled throughout each section. There are a few pleasantries exchanged, but as soon as 7 pm hits, the singing begins.
Not being the best at reading music, I don’t join in, but I’m quickly lost in the harmonies and the spiritual uplift of these songs. They are tunes of toil and hardship and suffering, but all with the promise of better things on the other side of death. And the effect of all these voices singing as one makes it hard not to wonder if they’re on to something.
What is still surprising to me is that Sacred Harp has spread so far from where it started. Fahrbach spends his vacation days traveling the world to conventions in Europe and throughout the U.S. And for something that has the twang and hardscrabble ethos of the rural South, it is weird to hear these tunes sung with such passion by middle class Northwesterners.
Salsburg, again, agrees with me on this front, but does say that Lomax (who passed away in 2002) was not at all surprised to hear that these singings are going on out west.
“Lomax saw it as the great apotheosis of the American democratic experience,” he says. “One person leads and everyone follows behind, and there’s a new leader every time. He said that someday there would be thousands of people taking part in this, and I’m surprised as anyone to admit that he was absolutely right.”
SEE IT: Portland Sacred Harp meets at Kennedy School, 5736 NE 33rd Ave., on Sunday, Feb. 24. 3 pm. Free. All ages.