Interest in singing from the American “Sacred Harp” tradition has grown stronger in recent years, an awareness that is reflected in our selection for this month’s Song of the Month.
Introduction by Sasha Hsuczyk
The Sacred Harp is an American collection of hymns that has been continuously in print since it was first published in Georgia in 1844. Families of singers in many parts of the South have been singing from the book for generations, and today the Sacred Harp is enjoyed and used all over the U.S. as well as abroad. Part of what I think makes the book appealing to people from such a wide range of places and backgrounds are the universal messages that many of the songs express. As individual people we may lead very different daily lives, but as humans, collectively, we share a lot of the same emotions as we face the various trials of life. I find that singing from the Sacred Harp can offer a great deal of comfort, as well as a chance to empathize with others through song.
For September, I chose a popular favorite from the Sacred Harp that helps to inspire me — Canaan’s Land. For those who have a copy of the book it can be found at the top of page 101. The tune is rather interesting in that it is one of only a few songs in the Sacred Harp that uses just four notes in the melody. The words can be found going back as early as 1822 in a words-only hymnal called Social and Campmeeting Songs for the Pious, and was printed in several later hymnals, as well. It was no doubt a popular piece of poetry.
It's not certain, but this song was likely composed by E.J. King, one of two compilers of the first edition of the Sacred Harp. He is described as "a farmer and singing teacher with 'bright prospects as a musician'" in David Warren Steel's book, The Markers of the Sacred Harp. Unfortunately, he passed away at the young age of 23, just after the Sacred Harp was published.
The words in the second half of the song look to the Eternal Spirit to give the singer guidance to "steer thro' [sic] life’s tempestuous sea, where stormy winds do blow." We can look for the same comfort in raising our voices in song with friends; try these harmonies with some of your favorite singing pals!
Sasha Hsuczyk was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. Her first few years of college were spent in Ireland attending the University of Limerick’s undergraduate program in traditional Irish music, where she studied the fiddle. It was there in the traditional music section of the library that she discovered a copy of the Sacred Harp. She completed her undergraduate degree in Western Massachusetts at Hampshire College, earning a certificate in ethnomusicology. She has traveled all over the east coast to sing from the Sacred Harp, with several pilgrimages to Alabama and Georgia. Sasha currently resides in Pennsylvania, where she works as a vegetable farmer and musician, splitting her time between rural Berks County and Philadelphia. Thanks so Aldo Ceresa, Rachel Hall, Alex Forsyth, and Emma Swartz for their support!