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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

107. Musical Travels – Richmond, KY: Discovering Sacred Harp in the Bluegrass State

Sacred Harp Singing in Richmond Kentucky
The Fifth Sunday Meetup was held at the Richmond Area Arts Center, a converted Episcopal church built in 1887.

My previous post was all about my explorations into the musical cultures of New Orleans, my first home. Yet, as Louisville has come to feel more and more like home over the last three years, I have also enjoyed getting to know the musical cultures of Kentucky and rural Appalachia. I have written about these encounters with local music in previous blog posts, such as hearing Sheila Kay Adams sing Appalachian ballads in Asheville last March and visiting My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown the summer prior. The experience I had this afternoon, however—participating in a Sacred Harp singing in Richmond, KY—has brought me into an even deeper understanding of local musical traditions.

Sacred Harp is a style of choral singing associated with the American South. It flourished in rural Protestant churches of the mid-nineteenth century where few members of the congregation had musical training but deep religious convictions encouraged their group participation nevertheless. To circumvent this lack of training, a special notation known as shape notes developed in which the conventional seven-note scale is aligned to four distinct shapes. While this system retains the standard oval notehead, it adds triangles, squares, and diamonds to give amateur singers specific cues for each shape. Several solfege syllables are also eliminated, so that the scale reads fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi-fa where each fa is a triangle, sol an oval, la a rectangle, and the single mi a diamond. With communal singing as the first priority, a distinctive tradition marked by its stark harmonies and roughness of tone grew-up around these shape notes. Much of its repertoire is collected in The Sacred Harp, a hymnal first published in 1844 by Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King, which also lent its name to the idiom itself. This volume contains music by prominent eighteenth-century hymnodists of New England (such as William Billings and Daniel Read) as well as music of the nineteenth-century, much of which is believed to have originated as secular folksongs. Later editions have added new songs written in the style of the older hymns.

Ethan leads a hymn from the center of the square.

Richmond is in central Kentucky, just south of Lexington. I drove myself and my friends, Ethan McCollum and Drew Sarette, to this afternoon’s singing; Ethan’s parents who live in nearby Berea also met us there. There are different shape-note groups around the state, including one in Louisville. The idea of the Fifth Sunday Meetup is to bring singers from each of these groups together on an occasional basis. We had about twenty singers which is a modest group considering there are much larger Sacred Harp festivals which draw-in many more singers. In addition to our Kentuckians, several more-experienced singers, including Ray Rechenberg, also drove down from Cincinnati to help mentor us. Ray explained his group will travel up to three hours in any direction to guide smaller groups and ensure that the traditions of Sacred Harp singing are preserved. In general, I felt a warm sense of community among those gathered, some of whom had been brought for religious reasons and many others who came to satisfy their musical and historical curiosities. One of the special aspects of Sacred Harp is that singers sit in four groups each facing the others, rather than some invisible audience. It is an art of participation, and all are welcome to participate and encouraged to do so at their fullest; “if you can hear your neighbors,” they joked, “you’re not singing loud enough.” At the center of the square, a leader stands—not really to conduct in our sense, but to keep the beat with a movement of their hands. This leader changes with every song, so that anyone who wants to has the opportunity to lead from the center of the square. The leader chooses the hymn and also has the benefit of being surrounded by all four voice parts singing at their fullest.

Number 186, “Sherburne,” as it appears in the latest edition of “The Sacred Harp” hymnal

I led on Number 186, Sherburne, by hymnodist Daniel Read. This song was familiar to me from a seminar on American music I had taken as an undergraduate, so I was really glad to find it in the hymnal index. It is what is known as a fuging tune, a hymn genre which developed in eighteenth-century England and quickly made its way to New England where Read, Billings, Daniel Belknap, and their American contemporaries made the most notable contributions. It only resembles the fugue to a limited extent, mainly that the four voice parts stagger their entrances as in other imitative music. Unlike fugues or even simple canons, however, the first part of a fuging tune is typically homophonic with the staggered entrances following after a brief pause. By the end of the verse, they have realigned in a grand fashion. Ethan also had the chance to lead on a song of his choosing. Often the familiar songs—like Sherburne which is a Christmas hymn or a classic by Billings like Chester, Africa, or Emmaus—provoke a happy response from the singers who are eager to sing one of their favorites. Admittedly the unfamiliar ones often provoke responses too: “we haven’t done that one in a while” or “oh, that will be a challenge.” Everyone is just so glad to be there though, and there is not the tension of a typical choir rehearsal where so much urgency is given to the end result of the impending public performance. Indeed there is usually laughter if things go astray, and someone might ask to take another shot at the hymn. There is no formal performance in mind; we are only interested in our own edification.

A quiet scene on the Kentucky River as it passes near Richmond

All three of us left with our own Sacred Harp hymnals, given to us by one of the older gentlemen on the promise that we would be back to sing again. I certainly plan to attend more singings and hopefully get involved with the Louisville group, Kentuckiana Sacred Harp, which meets monthly. There’s also a full-weekend gathering in August in southeastern Kentucky I might try to attend; that’s one part of the state, past Cumberland Falls and toward Pine Mountain, which I have not yet seen. In my time in Louisville, I have also enjoyed contradancing—another Old American tradition—and there is a local group that dances every Monday night. Last April my music school friends, Ava Bradley and Katherine Reardon, began bringing me to their dances, and I have also made new friends while there. A real joy for me has also been the live music since each dance is accompanied by an old-time string band with fiddles, banjos, and guitars. Otherwise, a few weeks ago, I attended a bluegrass festival hosted at Cherokee Park by the Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy called “Bluegrass on the Beargrass.” Although rain brought a quick halt to the music, before it did I enjoyed hearing the music wander-in through the trees as I hiked. I have not yet made it to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in Owensboro or the Bill Monroe Birthplace an hour south from there in Rosine, KY. But, lookout for a MusicCentral post when I do! Like Sacred Harp singing, these are essential experiences for anyone who wants to engage with the musical traditions of Kentucky.

JSH 19.06.30

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer graduated with his Master of Music in Music History and Literature from the University of Louisville in May 2019 upon the completion of his thesis, “Liminal Aesthetics: Perspectives on Harmony and Timbre in the Music of Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail, and Kaija Saariaho.” He has shared this pioneering research through presentations given at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meetings in Asheville, NC and Sewanee, TN and at the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN. During his studies in Louisville, he was the recipient of the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship and was employed at the Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library where he did archival work for the unique Grawemeyer Collection which houses scores, recordings, and documentation for over five thousand entries by the world’s leading contemporary composers. Previously, Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, LA. Then, from 2014 to 2016, Jackson served as director of the successful chamber music series, Abendmusik Alexandria. He has remained a concert annotator and organizer, co-directing the annual Sugarmill Music Festival. The scholarly writings he has produced for this festival have even attracted the attention of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Aside from his studies, he is a composer, choral singer, and award-winning nature photographer. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at


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