In a small, nondescript building near Portland's Laurelhurst Park, a group of people gathered last month for a weekend of singing. They arranged themselves in a large, square formation, each voice part on a separate side and all sections pointing to the center. A name was called, indicating the leader of the next song. The leader walked to the center of the square and announced the song. The leader raised a hand to signal the start of the song, and the room filled with the loud and joyful sound of 150 voices singing together.
This scene was repeated over and over again during the two-day Portland Sacred Harp Singing Convention held in October. It's an annual gathering that celebrates the 200-year-old American folk tradition of "sacred harp" music, also known as "shape note singing" due to its unique musical notation that uses shapes to aid in sight reading. Shape note music is performed a cappella and its simple, four-part harmonies produce a stark and haunting sound.
There isn't an audience at a shape note singing. It is a social musical experience, done purely for the enjoyment of the singers present. But the person with perhaps the best seat in the house is the song leader, who stands in the middle of the square and directs the singing. The rotating job is open to all who want to get up and lead the group in song. It's also the best place to get the full effect of the four-part harmonies and the powerful sound.
"Everyone who sings really looks forward to their time in the square," says singer Bridgett Kennedy. "You get that sort of stereo sound with all the parts coming at you from each side. You hear it in the center like nowhere else."
Although shape note singing has its strongest roots in the churches of the rural South, it has found a new home in the Pacific Northwest, where it attracts singers of all different ages, backgrounds and interests. Jen Rymut attended her first singing just a few months ago and was quickly hooked by the sound of the music and the community of people.
"I love the feeling that everyone is here to be loud together and to sing for each other and to sing for yourself," says Rymut. "That's something I can really get behind because I'm not that great at singing at this point," she adds, laughing.
Portland Sacred Harp has been the hub of a vibrant shape note community for more than 20 years. They organize weekly "singings," which attract 30 to 40 singers a night, as well as monthly singing schools where newcomers learn the basics of the musical style and notation and practice the songs.
But the highlight of the year for Portland Sacred Harp is the two-day "singing convention," which draws people from around the Pacific Northwest and from as far away as Georgia and Alabama. An "all-day" sacred harp convention is a bit like hosting your out-of-town relatives, and the local organizers throw out the welcome mat with social events in the evenings and bountiful potlucks in between singing sessions known as "dinner-on-the-grounds."
"They have a great convention here in Portland," says Kennedy, who travels from Birmingham, Alabama each year to attend. "Great voices, good food and organization are all important. But I think it's the real feel of community that makes a great convention."
Go See It!
The best way to get the full shape note music experience is to hear it in person. Portland Sacred Harp welcomes the public to attend one of their regular singings or singings schools, regardless of musical ability or experience. To learn more about upcoming events, visit the Portland Sacred Harp website.