- 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.

Hugh McGraw, who she calls one of the forefathers of modern Sacred Harp singing, helped compile the book. He was seated in the bass section of the church Sunday.

McGraw said he started singing in 1953.

“I was about 21 when I first heard it,” McGraw said. “It was just like I joined a church.”

He sings every weekend somewhere. He composes and McGraw said he has seven hymns in the book. He also teaches Sacred Harp singing.

“I’ve taught singing schools all over the world,” McGraw said. “England, the Holy Land, everywhere. They sing it in Australia.”

Reba Gay, who was sitting in the audience, said Sacred Harp singing, which had become nearly a lost art, is experiencing an uptick in popularity. She was raised attending singings, Gay said. The Muscadine event had dwindled over the decades, but in the last few years the number of singers has increased, she said.

That is due in no small part to the lovers of the music who teach singing schools and even camps to introduce new singers to their passion, said several of the attendees. Many had been introduced to the singings by other members of the group.

“My mom and dad made this their life’s work,” said Rene Greene of Glencoe.

Her parents, Jeff and Shelbie Sheppard, died in 2013, but in their lives they inspired hundreds to sing in the Sacred Harp tradition, she said. Her father’s songs are also included in the book of hymns.

Chase led his song just before the group broke for lunch. Hugging tightly into his mother’s side and holding her hand, he raised and lowered his hand in time to the notes while she turned to each section to let them know when to chime in.

“I’d love to see more younger folks get into it,” said Stephen McElroy, who was listening just outside the door. “This place used to be packed.”


Information from: The Anniston Star, https://www.annistonstar.com/

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