Awake My Soul
Finally, the sacred and the profane share common ground in joyful noise! I was heartened to receive a copy of the new documentary on Sacred Harp singing, Awake, My Soul, and this accompanying two-disc (!) soundtrack. Sacred Harp, or shaped note, singing is one of the oldest enduring forms of American music -- over 200 years -- making its way from England, to New England, and finally the American South, where it found a home in Southern churches. Despite the name, there are no instruments involved in Sacred Harp singing: it is an a capella singing style built around four-part vocal harmonies. More communal than traditional forms of gospel and choral singing, it does not require a director or leader; when a church congregation sings the Sacred Harp, everyone in the building enthusiastically participates, getting caught up in the waves of loud, boisterous, reverberating sound.
The first time I heard Sacred Harp music, I was fucking floored. This was like no staid church music I had ever encountered before! This was an alien/outsider sound, completely bucking traditional notions of dynamics and choral techniques for a rousing, rough-hewn cacophony that is as ecstatic and strong as it is tremendously sad. More Phil Spector than the Gaither Family, more Velvet Underground than Mormon Tabernacle Choir, this is a wall of human sound, all booming, discordant exuberance. The imperfections in one human voice could be turned into a thing of sanctified beauty when belted out unabashedly and multiplied by the many. If enough people are singing together wrong, it can suddenly become so right.
The first disc is full of authentic recordings captured at various churches by the filmmakers, Matt and Erica Hinton. It's immaculate. The recordings and performances are every bit as good as those captured by Alan Lomax for his Southern Journey series. The second disc, a collection of modern artists adapting songs from the Sacred Harp songbook, captures the gravitas and dirt-stained dignity of the music, but somewhat misses all of the raucous din and discordant ecstasy that is the essential ingredient. Though tracks by Danielson (surely the inheritor of the spirit of the Sacred Harp, if there ever was one), Doc Watson and Woven Hand come close to the energy and sound. A very worthy package for an almost forgotten American song craft.