The essential egalitarianism of American democracy thundered out of Gage Hall early Saturday morning, as Sacred Harp singing echoed from the 18th century, in a day-long revival of the origins of these United States.
Sacred Harp was a revelation, for the tremendous beauty of scores of voices raised in glorious praise; but so too for worship understood as a communal affair; and for a lesson in America's historical geography.
The contrast with the hierarchical church of the Europe that early Americans were leaving behind could not have been more stark. The new world fascination with assembly, equality (bastard as that may have been in practice), and resulting republican democracy came sharply into focus, as Charleston's Sacred Harp singers - ably accompanied by brethren who brought greetings from North Carolina and Georgia - lifted the rafters in praise of a transatlantic God; worshipped now in radically new form, the embodiment of revolutionary politics.
Sacred Harp singers create a "hollow square" by sitting in sections, treble opposite bass and alto across from tenor. There is no dais, nowhere for any one person to dominate proceedings, serving as conduit to the almighty. Instead, individuals take turns to lead their peers in worship. The individual stands within the square; announces his or her choice of hymn; pages are turned; and the congregation regales successive, momentary leaders with the power of so many voices chiming together in praise. The intensity of the experience within the square, which must be altogether a heady rush, in part accounts for the fact that individuals volunteered more than once to lead. Over the course of a day of worship this happens many times, and the hymnal is many hundreds deep.
But nobody, in standing to start the song, could be under any illusions about leading in any meaningful way. No single voice can hold its own against the wall of sound that the body makes. Therein too lies abandon for a complete novice trying to sing parts of more accessible hymns. It's not about how good the congregation sounds, it's about communion, and the hymns will always shine as even the very weakest voice is lifted up on so much sound. This music soars. The service at Gage Hall - and there was literature on hand to explain that applauding was not so much frowned upon as just nonsensical: this was not a performance, but a service - was profoundly spiritual through shared stewardship, before it was ever charged with faith.
The service transported us to a time when community was a word of far greater heft than is the case today. Life then was lived at a very different scale, and a man's word was indeed his bond if he couldn't bring in the harvest without your help. This is the local scale we romanticize and yearn for: locally grown vegetables, anyone? If community was survival then how much easier to foster it with the congregation all looking at one another across the hollow square, rather than regimented, facing, ultimately, Rome. And, how much easier for courting - a bedrock dimension to the community's perpetuation - to have men and women participate regularly in important community business together.
Sacred Harp is of a piece with key American political ideals of its time. Saturday's concert exercised those ideals through songs of praise. And, oh, the ecstasy of the music!
Mark Long, a political geographer, is associate professor of political science at the College of Charleston.
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