EDWARDSVILLE — On Labor Day morning, while much of the world was still making coffee, they quietly converged on the little church in the woods.
They turned off the highway and down a rutted one-lane dirt road with weeds so high they whisk the bottom of the car — through Talladega National Forest, where the forest floor is littered with trunks of trees that fell, unheard by anybody — and on to Shoal Creek Church, an unadorned log cabin where the pews will seat about 50.
They came to make a noise. Actually, four noises.
“First two verses,” said John Plunkett, raising his hand in a chopping motion. Then he began: “La fa la.”
“La la, fa so fa la,” chanted three dozen people, first softly, then growing into a booming chorus that sounded like a chant from a medieval church. On the next go-round, fa-so-la-mi gave way to the words of a familiar hymn, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.”
Since 1920, organizers say, Shoal Creek has hosted an annual gathering for devotees of Sacred Harp, a musical tradition known to many in the South, but practiced by relatively few.
It’s a teaching method as much as it is a musical genre. Sacred Harp uses “shape notes,” an alternate take on musical notation that includes different shapes for different pitches — a triangle for “fa,” for instance — to teach people to read music by sight.
Choirs gather in a “hollow square” formation, with basses, altos, tenors and trebles sitting on each side of the square, and they sing in four-part harmony. Properly trained singers can gather and quickly belt out powerful gospel songs with little or no practice together.
Those in the hollow square say it’s easy to learn. Spectators at Monday’s gathering weren’t so sure.
“I’m sure that for people who grew up with it, it’s easy,” said Danny McCarty, who has participated in several Sacred Harp singings, but chose to watch this one from the sidelines. “It takes time to learn, and I don’t know that I’ve really got it.”
McCarty married into a family with deep roots in Shoal Creek Church. Cheatwoods, Holleys, Edwardses and Colemans are buried on the hill above the church, in graves that seem too short to hold modern adults. Most are marked with nothing but stones. Only family members know which belongs to an adult or a child, a Johnson or a Knighten, though someone took the time to place a pink artificial rose at the head of each.
For Sacred Harp fans, keeping up the music is like keeping up those graves – at once a family duty, a way of archiving history and a way of getting in touch with people who are long gone.
“I went to my first singing when I was 14 years old,” said Winfred Kerr, a Heflin resident. “And then I stopped for 43 years.”
After the death of his wife, Kerr said, he began to go to singings again to be close to relatives. Kerr believes the art is in danger of dying. Singings, at least, are less common.
“It seems like just a few years ago that I could go to a singing every week right around here,” he said. “I wouldn’t go any farther than Carrollton.”
Today the drives are longer, he said.
Many of the older singers in the crowd recall when “singing schools” to teach the Sacred Harp method were common in the local area. Accounts in the Anniston Star – or the lack of them – show just how common singings were. In the 1950s and 1960s, one-paragraph announcements of singings appeared often in the back pages. A singing itself was rarely news, unless it was unusual – as when singers in 1951 recorded an event and sent the tape to Korea for Alabama soldiers who’d requested their favorite songs.
“It’s a dying art,” said Cecil Roberts of Steadman, Ga., an organizer of the Shoal Creek event.
Roberts is quick to qualify that statement, noting that new participants often seem to come out of nowhere.
Some are like Roberts, a self-described “late-bloomer” who was introduced to the music as a teen, but came back in adulthood. Others never quit. And there’s a younger crowd who’ve just learned about the music and develop a fascination.
“After the movie ‘Cold Mountain’ we saw a surge in interest, but that’s kind of died down,” he said.
Cornelia van den Doel came all the way from Amsterdam to sing at Shoal Creek. The musical style has devotees in Europe, she said, who meet in small groups.
“Here, you have ones this tall who are doing it better than me,” she said, holding her hand at a toddler’s height. She said the trip to Shoal Creek is worth a 10-hour plane ride.
“It’s a way of life, and it’s amazing to see how kind people are to one another,” she said. “And it’s a relief that politics and religion are not discussed.”
That’s true, she maintains, even though all the songs are about Christian faith.
“I’m not religious and everybody knows it,” said van den Doel, who like many other singers took her turn leading the chorus. “We just don’t talk about it.”
Roberts, the event organizer, said the best way to get started in Sacred Harp is to simply show up for a singing. People who are interested can look up events at the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association’s website, fasola.org.