The Short Version
Sacred Harp, also known as Shape Note Singing, is a body of work and a musical tradition which has been passed on from one generation to the next for about two hundred years. It consists primarily of over five hundred three- and four-part hymns which are collected in The Sacred Harp, a hymnal first compiled in 1844. These hymns are sung unaccompanied, in rich and unusual harmony - they are very different from the standard organ-accompanied hymns found in modern churches. The "shape notes," four distinctively different note-heads, are associated with the sung syllables fa, sol, la, and mi. (This is a precursor to the modern do-re-mi system.) When Sacred Harp singers meet, they sit in a hollow square, with one voice part forming each side. Each singer in turn comes to the center of the square, calls out a page number from The Sacred Harp, and leads the hymn he or she has chosen. It is an intensely democratic tradition and an intensely joyful experience.
"Then there's this story. When I moved to New Hartford, New York a few years ago, I was bereft of spiritual support and looking for a group with which to worship. The local synagogues seemed mired in "traditions" that didn't, to my understanding, reflect the true essence of my faith. I called the local Unitarian minister. He was on vacation, so I was referred to another minister in a very small town about 45 minutes away. He was a lovely individual, an ex-Catholic. We talked about our spiritual journeys. I said (half jokingly, half not) that I was surprised he hadn't become an atheist instead of a Unitarian. Well, he said, that was an interesting observation. He thought he HAD become an atheist. But two things happened to bring his heart back to the Lord. One of them was that, one day in Chicago, he was passing by a building on a university campus where people were singing the most glorious music. He went in to listen, and the reality and love of God were instantly reaffirmed.
Turns out the group was the Chicago area Sacred Harp singers."
(from the fasola discussions email list)
"A few hours of singing in the American folk idiom known as "shape note." Average schmoes off the street sit in a square facing inward and sing American traditional hymns in unaccompanied four-part harmony, and somehow it comes out sounding good and feeling fantastic. No experience required; loaner books available. Participation by the average schmoe is encouraged, of course."
Description of the shape note singing workshop at the 2002 University of Chicago Festival of the Arts.