Southern vocal music comes to Mercer Island

Feb 15, 2012

For Sacred Harp singing, the Pacific Northwest is home to a small but dedicated following. The unique vocal style comes from the south, originating in rural parts of Georgia and Alabama. This weekend, singers from around the northwest will be gathering on Mercer Island.

Stanley Smith, from Ozark Alabama, says the music grabbed him at a young age.

"I remember being overwhelmed by the sound – holding a Styrofoam cup, and just feeling that cup vibrating in my hand."

Sacred Harp, also known as shape-note singing, is known for its powerful harmonies and custom notation to help people read the music.

(Video: 'Awake, My Soul' is the first feature documentary about the Sacred Harp singers. Below is the trailer.)

The harmonies are different

"They tend towards more open harmonies, which is more of an older, archaic sound," says Greg Sally of Spokane, Wash. "The notation is different too, which was invented to give people an easier chance to sing a cappella harmony."

In this style, notes have one of four names: fa, sol, la or mi. And its easy to remember them because each has a corresponding shape: triangle, square, diamond or the traditional oval seen in most sheet music today. 

They welcome anyone

Sacred Harp gatherings are known for their hospitality. Attendees at events like this weekend's are invited to sing along and are often given the chance to lead a song or two.