Loud & Proud: Eagle Rock’s Sacred Harp singers find harmony in historic hymns

Singing together is a marvelous thing to do, and singing loud and energetically is an even more marvelous thing to do.”


EAGLE ROCK — The sound of voices boldly singing in harmony bursts from the doorway of Mary Rose O’Leary home like a herald from another time. This is Sacred Harp singing, and the neighbors are used to it. A group in Eagle Rock has been gathering in a “hollow square” once a month in O’Leary’s home since 1989 to sing some of America’s oldest melodies – songs about faith, sorrow, and death.

“We’re singing for each other, we’re not singing for performance,” said Rick Russell has been singing with the group since 1992. “You can see the faces of the people you’re singing with – see their joy, feel their joy. It’s a strong emotional experience.”

The singers sit with their fellow voice parts (treble, alto, tenor and bass) and face each other in a square. The best spot in the room is in the center, where all of the voices join together in quadraphonic sound.

The Hollow Square of the Sacred Harp

“It’s like getting your brain scrubbed,” said O’Leary, who hosts the once-a-month, Sunday afternoon sing-alongs. “Maybe it’s the vibration in my head or chest but it’s … addictive.”

It is an egalitarian, a-political and non-religious group, despite the fact that they sing almost entirely Christian hymns. Singers take turns choosing songs from a book first published in 1844, and when you hear this group sing, the simple, rustic notes sound like something from another time.

The first time through each song, the words are replaced with four basic notes – fa, sol, la, mi – each assigned a different geometric shape (triangle, circle, square, diamond).

It’s partly to accommodate people who don’t read music, but as Laura Russell explains, it’s also a nod to the past. “The tradition of singing the syllables first is the way it’s been done since this music first started in this country, so that’s why we do it.”

The group welcomes anyone who wants to sing on the first Sunday of the month. Visit fasola.org for more information. There’s also a regional gathering in San Pedro on Saturday, May 16.

Lynne Westafer is a journalist, filmmaker, video producer and writer.

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