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Friday May 26, 2017
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Ann Arbor Sacred Harp

 

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Sacred Harp songs are written in four "shape notes": "la" is a square, "fa" is a triangle, "sol" is a circle, and "mi" is a diamond. A scale sung using the shapes would go "fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, fa." When a particular hymn is called, the singers first sing it through using the shapes and then again with the words. If that sounds complicated, it is. The woman next to me whispered, "Don't worry about the shapes — just sing 'la' on everything if you want to." I did, and was right 25 percent of the time. It was a little easier with the words — so long as I didn't think about what I was singing.

This is dark stuff, penned during a time in which death was a part of daily life, earthly life was regarded as an uncomfortable way station to heaven, and faith explained everything, good and bad. Times are bad now too, I suppose, and there's comfort to be found in the more uplifting lyrics, but as I found myself loudly intoning things like "What is this that steals, that steals upon my frame? Is it death? Is it death?" my mind kept coming back to germ theory and antibiotics and the comforts therein. Songs like "World Unknown" ask, "Am I born to die? To lay this body down? And must my trembling spirit fly into a world unknown?" and made me realize afresh that there are some questions that are uniquely human, and asked across the ages.

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