Statewide folklife program highlights local Sacred Harp group

My column in next week’s paper is about the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase, which is not this weekend but next. Part of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, the Folklife Program highlights some of the Commonwealth’s dustier corners, all in an effort to distill what, exactly, it means to be a Virginian today.

For example, one of the traditions highlighted at next week’s showcase will be a master and apprentice maker of Mongolian masks. Mongolian masks at a celebration of Virginia? Turns out, says Virginia’s state folklorist Jon Lohman, the Mongolian population is large enough in Arlington to make it the third most-spoken language in schools there.

But what interested me most about the showcase is a local group called the Rivanna River Sacred Harp. The local group’s two founders will be studying with experienced Sacred Harp leaders from Berryville, in Clarke County, where there is apparently a rich tradition of Shape Note singing.

The tradition began in New England, but is enjoying something of a revival nationally, after some Shape Note tunes were included on the soundtrack to Cold Mountain, and the 2006 documentary Awake, My Soul.

Among the interesting things the guy who runs the local group, John Alexander, told me, was that it is a "very democratic" tradition. The music itself bears this out: The chorus sings four syllables—fa, so, la and mi—that are plotted on sheet music with distinct shapes—triangles, ovals, squares and diamonds—intended to make sight-reading easy. As songs begin, singers warm up with a verse using the sounds associated with the shapes; by the second verse, singers start with the lyrics.

I won’t bore you with the history of Shape Note just now—look at Tuesday’s column for that—but I did want to share what Alexander says is one of the most famous Shape Note tunes, "Idumea."