Sacred Harp

I live in a region of New England in love with its tradition. I met my husband at a contra dance; several friends are Morris dancers (and had their side perform at their wedding). I play the Irish fiddle, and Rob plays the mandolin. Suffice to say, I’m steeped in New England folk tradition . . . so how did I miss Sacred Harp until now? (Yes, its considered more Southern than from New England . . . but many of the hymns originated here, and it's quite popular.)

At any rate, I started going to sings last week (every Tuesday for two hours), and I just got back from my second. I love pretty much everything about it, but one thing I particularly appreciate is how many of the songs relate to  . . . death.

Yeah. Like that.

When all of the DEATH! DEATH! lyrics come up, we do tend to joke about it . . . “Ohh, another gloomy one!”

I love it.

If you know me, you know that I think about death all the time. Im with folks at or near their last breath. I help wash the dead and close their eyes. I sit with the dying and listen to their rattling breath. Most modern Americans . . . dont. Dont think about it, dont touch it, dont go near it. Once in nursing school, of all places youd think people might think about death, I muttered to the person sitting next to me, “Makes you think about your own mortality, doesnt it?” she gave a sort of blank stare, and said, “No, not really . . . my parents mortality, maybe.” Really? Really. So outside of work, singing Sacred Harp is the only time I get to process death with a community. 

Today I was singing these old hymns, and I suddenly thought , “Hey. My constant thoughts about death arent weird. They were normal two hundred years ago. Everyone then had the same desperate need to process death that I feel now. Hence all these hymns! Its just that were so insulated from death that we think contemplating it is morbid, think we don’t need to contemplate it at all.”

What else did we lose when we lost the constant awareness of death?