Sacred Harp singing in downstate Illinois

Shape-note singing or Harp singing is amateur, community-based choral music rooted in a living tradition that dates from the 1700s and 1800s. Our music is called shape-note singing because different notes of the scale carry noteheads of different shapes as an aid to sight-reading -- a triangle for fa, an oval for sol, a rectangle for la and so on. It's written especially for untrained voices, and you don't have to be a virtuoso musician to sing it. Once largely confined to Alabama, Georgia and southern Appalachia, organized group singing from a shape-note tunebook called The Sacred Harp has spread north since the mid-1980s.

Illinois poet and historian Carl Sandburg found in the old shape-note hymns a "dark and moving poetry" lifted by "occasional jubilation, joy over moments to come when life was over on earth, when the scroll of time was rolled and the region of the timeless, the eternal was entered." Illinoisans, among others nationwide, still find in these hymns a mixture of dark poetry, joy and spiritual uplift.

In Illinois, we've been singing the old music for the last 15 or 20 years out of a tunebook called The Sacred Harp. It has been in print since 1844, and the revision we use is now published in Bremen, Ga. Ours is one of four or five closely related shape-note singing traditions -- in fact they're so closely related, nobody can say with final authority how many there are. In that regard, our music is like our chili and barbecue -- it has distinct regional flavors. In Kentucky, people still sing from William Walker's Southern Harmony, first published in 1835. In North Carolina and parts of Alabama and Mississippi, Christian Harmony singers use books by that name, also first compiled by Walker. In East Tennessee, people use The New Harp of Columbia and call themselves "Harp singers" or "Old Harp singers." (The writer, an expatriate Tennessean, prefers those terms for the same reason he makes chili with pinto beans and ground beef -- that's how things were done back home.) In large parts of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas, "Denson book" and "Cooper book" revisions of The Sacred Harp are used. And in recent years Sacred Harp singing has spread nationwide, with the Denson revision predominating in Illinois. Shape-note singers value each other's traditions, however, and we hold 2- or 3-book singings celebrating different shape-note traditions.

Music professor Warren Steel of Ole Miss gives this definition of the Sacred Harp tradition, in terms that could apply equally well to all: "Sacred Harp singing is a non-denominational community musical event emphasizing participation, not performance. Singers sit facing inward in a hollow square. Each individual is invited to take a turn 'leading,' i.e. standing in the center, selecting a song, and beating time with the hand." We sing for each other, not an audience. Our singing tends to be loud, heartfelt, genuine and emotional. Says reporter Bo Emerson of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "This isn't polite church music. ... It wallops your stomach, vibrates your spine, makes the inside of your head buzz." But it's not just the volume. Regional columnist Fred Brown of The Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel speaks of how Old Harp music "takes off and lifts up over the heads of the singers and charges out of the church's doors and into the bright sunlight ... clear as a new mountain morning."

Singings in the North are usually more sedate than those in Georgia or Alabama, but Sacred Harp has a rough-hewn intensity often lacking in contemporary choral music. "This music is for singers, not for listeners. And for amateur, untrained voices at that," says Lisa Grayson of Chicago, author of a helpful guide for beginners. "We set our chairs in a hollow square; there's no audience at our singings. We don't rehearse or perform; we sing as an end in itself. And loud singing provides more catharsis, more instant gratification, more visceral pleasure, than controlled singing."

Yet there is, for many of us, a genuine spiritual side of our singing. "What wonderful joy," writes Clarke Lee of Hoboken, Ga., in Lisa Grayson's primer, "to share with one another [in song] the innermost feelings of the heart, and how overwhelming it all is sometimes. It is a great joy to be with others who feel and express their feelings, and share with others the joys and griefs of their own experiences of Sacred Harp, in their own way, without trying to make others see and believe as they do" Writing in Liturgy 90, a publication of the Catholic archdiocese of Chicago, singer Elizabeth Hoffman says, "People sing their hearts out. This is what I long for at church -- people who love what they are doing and show it. ... The singers and the sound will lift your spirit, and you may get new insight on what 'full, active and conscious participation' could mean and how to help it happen."

Our singings, North and South, are modeled after a Southern institution known as an "all-day singing with dinner on the ground." (Some call it "dinner on the grounds," but Hugh McGraw, president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Co. once told a writer for Georgia Journal it was "dinner on the ground" because that's where they ate it -- on the ground! All agree that dinner is the noonday meal.) I While most of our song texts are religious, no doctrine is preached at a Sacred Harp singing and people of all faith communities -- or none at all -- are welcome. A final note. There are no harps. The "sacred harp" is the human voice.

If you'd like to know more about Sacred Harp singing, the websites on my links page will give you an excellent introduction. Lisa Grayson's Beginner's Guide to Shape-note Singing can be ordered for $3 from the Chicago Sacred Harp Singers, 1807 W. North Ave., Chicago IL 60622. But the best way to learn more is to come to one of our singings, and raise your voice in song with us.

-- Pete Ellertsen <>

Photos above show, at right, a singing at Ursula Hall in Oct. 25, 1998, and, at left, alto section at the Beardstown Public Library Oct. 29, 2000. Courtesy of Mae Marie Noll and Mike Veech. The annual Ursula Hall Singing was held in Springfield the fourth Sunday in October from 1998 through 2001.


  1. Beale, John. Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.
  2. Brown, Fred. "Harp Singers' Music is Poetry of the Generations." Knoxville News-Sentinel 2 May 1988: A3.
  3. Chase, Gilbert. America's Music. Rev. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.
  4. Cobb, Buell. The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and its Music. Rev. ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.
  5. Daniel, Wayne W. "Sacred Harp." Georgia Journal Summer 1995: 37-39.
  6. Emerson, Bo. "Joyful Noise." Atlanta Journal-Constitution 29 June 1997: M1+.
  7. Grayson, Lisa. A Beginner's Guide to Shape-note Singing. Rev. ed. Chicago: Chicago Sacred Harp Singers, 1997
  8. Hoffman, Elizabeth. "Full, Conscious and Active Singing." Liturgy 90 [Archdiocese of Chicago] Oct. 1992: 8-9.
  9. Horn, Dorothy D. Sing To Me Of Heaven: A Study of Folk and Early American Materials in Three Old Harp Books. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1970.
  10. Jackson, George Pullen. White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933.
  11. Lomax, Alan. The Folk Songs of North America in the English Language. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.
  12. Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years. 2 vols. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1926.
  13. Steel, David Warren. Sacred Harp FAQ. <>.
  14. Walker, William. Southern Harmony, and Musical Companion. 1853. Ed. Harry Plantinga. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Wheaton, Ill.: Wheaton College, 1993.
  • To return to Peter Ellertsen's faculty webpage, please click here.
  • For my links on Harp singing and other shape-note traditions, please click here.
  • For a history of shape-note singing in the Sangamon valley, please click here.
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    Updated Jan. 23, 2003, 10:30 a.m. CST

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