- Associated Press - Monday, April 28, 2014

MUSCADINE, Ala. (AP) - Spiritual hymns floated out the door of a tiny, usually silent, country church in Muscadine on Sunday.

St. Michael Lutheran Church has not had a service since the 1950s. But each year in April, its doors open for a Sacred Harp singing.

The church burned when Lucille Kilgore McElroy was just a child in 1932 or 1934, she said Sunday during this year’s edition of the singing. It was rebuilt in 1951 or 1952 but only hosted services for a couple of years before being shuttered. However, as soon as it was rebuilt, it started hosting the singings and has continued the practice even after the church closed, McElroy said.

She has sung before, but now, McElroy comes to listen, she added.

The Sacred Harp singing tradition dates back a century and a half in the United States. It relies on special shapes printed in songbooks to indicate the notes of each song. The tradition, also called shape-note singing, has been practiced in Cleburne County at least since 1889, said Cecil Roberts, chairman of the Cleburne County Convention.

The convention, a member of the Alabama State Sacred Harp Singing Convention, was founded on Sept. 28, 1889, Roberts said. It hosts the Alewine-Laminack Memorial Sacred Harp Singing every year on the fourth Sunday in April. This year more than 40 people attended, some to listen but most to sing.

Song leaders stood in the middle of a square surrounded by bass singers on the left of the church, treble on the right. Tenors sit in front of the leader and the altos behind.

They start out singing the notes from the specially designed hymnal with square, triangle, circle and diamond notes. They sing a cappella with the leader helping to guide the first notes.

Fa, fa, so, la, the group sings. After they’ve sung a hymn’s notes, they launch into the song. Every couple of songs, a new leader steps into the square to lead their choice of songs.

Standing in the hollow square is the best vantage point to hear the songs, Roberts said. The metal roof in the church helps the sound, he added.

Fallon Cook of Tallapoosa, Ga., said standing in the center is a spiritual awakening.

“It just frees your soul,” Cook said.

She was raised in Muscadine and has been attending singings since she was a baby. She led her first song when she was 3 or 4 years old, Cook said.

Sunday, Cook brought her sons, Chance and Cain, to the singing. It wasn’t their first experience with the music. She has a CD and her iPod is full of recordings of Sacred Harp singings, Cook said. Chance, 9, was scheduled to lead a song - his favorite, “Schenectady,” number 192 in “The Sacred Harp 1991 Denson Edition.”

There are other books, but this one is used round the world, Cook said. She attended a convention in Ireland in March and sang with people from 11 countries using the same book, she said.

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