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25th annual Ohio Sacred Harp convention keeps folk tradition alive

Sacred Harp singers gather for a meeting in early January. They will hold a convention in Cincinnati in March.


On March 4 and 5, more than 100 regional and international "shape-note” singers will come together for the 25th annual Ohio Sacred Harp Singing Convention. Shape-note singing is a folk tradition first popularized in the late 19th century in the United States.

Shape-note singing uses four notes on a sheet of music, as opposed to the seven-note scale most commonly taught.

At the Ohio Convention, which takes place in Cincinnati every three years, participants will sing from the Sacred Harp songbook. Sacred Harp is a term that refers to the human voice, and the Sacred Harp hymnal book was first published in 1844. At the time, it was one of hundreds of hymnal collections written in shape-note notation.

Historically, groups of singers would gather for marathon all-day singing sessions at public conventions. These events were not performances or religious services, but were seen as inclusive, collective spiritual experiences. This folk tradition continues today, and the Sacred Harp is still the most enduring and widely-used shape-note songbook.

According to convention planner and founding member John Bealle the convention is nondenominational and inclusive to all.

“Some are devout Christians, and others are not — it’s really a personal thing,” Bealle says. The unique sounds of sacred harp singing are influenced by colonial era fugues, baroque composers and sometimes feature four-part, cascading harmonies. The songs touch on themes of praise and the shared experience of death.

“It’s a real physical experience, putting every bit of physical energy into music,” Bealle says. "We’ve even broken windows sometimes because the singing is so loud.”

Convention attendees do not come to watch a performance by professional singers. Rather, everyone in attendance participates in the a capella chorus.

According to the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association, sacred harp singing is “a living, breathing, ongoing practice passed directly to us by generations of singers, many gone on before and many still living.”

Bealle says that the convention is the perfect time to experience sacred harp singing for those unfamiliar with it. “The best singers are going to come to this,” he says.

The event is free, open to the general public and will take place at First Lutheran Church on Race Street in Over-the-Rhine. All ages are welcome to attend. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 4 and 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 5. For more information, visit the website.
 

Read more articles by Kamal Kimball.

Kamal Kimball studied English and social work at Ohio State University and is a State of Ohio LSW. She works in nonprofit development at Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati.
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