Marilyn Riley and Patti Gibney

It is a spring Sunday afternoon at the Lawrenceville School’s Edith Chapel. The building is empty and silent — even the glowing pipes of the Andover organ that fills the wall behind the altar are mute.

The chapel, built in 1882 in by the Boston-based architects Peabody and Stearns, is mainly brick, but wood is well represented in the sea of pews and the elaborate harp-like arches that converge overhead.

The word “harp” is on my mind because I am waiting for the monthly session of Sacred Harp to begin. That is a non-denominational music participation group — part of a national (and a growing international) network dedicated to creating performing events based on an American style of a cappella singing.

Sacred Harp — or human voice — singing dates back to the colonial era, when it was taught in “singing schools.” Eventually the schools waned and the practice was preserved by families and gatherings in the rural south. It is maintained by doing.

The Lawrence group — or community — meets the third Sunday of the month. There is no admission. Anyone is invited to attend and participate.

I have decided to give it a try and show up for the 1:30 p.m. session about 15 minutes early. But I am alone and wondering if I missed something.

Then at 1:25 p.m. the doors open and Patti Gibney — a retired cataloger at the Princeton University Library — arrives with a box of Sacred Harp hymnals in her arms. Marilyn Riley — retired as the public information officer for the New Jersey Department of Health — follows with refreshments.

Princeton resident Gibney is credited with introducing Sacred Harp to the area; Riley, who lives in Lawrence, supports the effort by helping to organize. The two seem to speak as one.

“My husband, who died nine years, and I were involved with ‘old timey’ music when we lived in Cambridge in the early 1970s, and there was Sacred Harp music there. That’s how we got started,” says Gibney.

After coming to the Princeton area to work, she and Princeton-based singer Nancy Kennard had hosted irregular Sacred Harp sessions in their homes. But the meetings were inconsistent and participation waned. Five years ago the Lawrenceville School embraced Gibney’s idea to meet there, and the regular monthly sessions were established. Gibney sees the support as a gift.

Riley first encountered Sacred Harp in the early 1970s, too, but she became involved just a few years ago. “When my only child went off to college, I wanted to do something. I did a Google search and found this group a mile away from my house. So I went and enjoyed it. When I was young I played violin in the school orchestra and really liked making music with other people. This has been really a great option. It’s an adventure every time you go to a singing. You don’t know who will be there,” she says.

The two women move quickly to the area between nave and alter and start configuring the session’s seating. Since the activity is designed for group participation and direct engagement, chairs are arranged in a square so participants can face one another.

Now other singers appear — a young man from Princeton, a Highland Park couple with a toddler, and a woman visiting from Poland. They readily join Gibney and Riley, move and arrange chairs, and put out the hymnals. Gibney says that attendance fluctuates around a dozen, and some regulars are away. That includes one of the group’s anchors, Leon Pulsinelle, whose devotion to the music includes a one-day trip to Boston to sing.

The singers now take their places in the square of seats. “Let’s sing page 59,” says Rachel Speer from Highland Park. She intones the song with sounds as a way of both tuning the group and introducing the melody before the others join and the singing begins.

The approach is called fasola, or shape-note singing. It is similar to the traditional Western music approach to pitch training solfege and serves the same purpose: to help sight read.

While Sacred Harp uses traditional staffs for musical notation, the notes include a shape that corresponds with a tone. “Fa” is a triangle, “so” oblong, and other shapes are connected to other sounds. One sings the shapes.

The first song ends, and participants leaf through their books. Since there is no conductor or leader, another person offers a selection. “It’s very democratic,” says Gibney. Now the Polish woman makes a selection. After a brief group discussion about parts, the woman provides the fasola and sets the rhythm with foot stomping and the rhythmic metronome-like movement of her right arm. The other singers join her, sounding full like the silent organ in the background. One of the phrases sums up what is happening: “A joyful sound.”

Famed American musicologist Alan Lomax noted that Sacred Harp music has a “haunting beauty” and a “wonderful sound” that could range from “stately” to “militant” to “lively” to “marvelous.”

The singing sounds both ancient and familiar. The ancient quality is in that the music originally came from English Protestant churches to the new world. It took on a life of its own in the 1700s during the Great Awakening spiritual movement. Its combination of physically expressed sound and textual affirmation provided strength and hope.

The music sounds familiar because of its connection to black gospel music, which shares spiritual themes, voice groupings, and rhythms, but gospel is more expression and has a fuller tone. There are also black Sacred Harp groups.

“It connects you with the past,” says Riley. “Sacred Harp is a living tradition because it is still being done in the traditional way. People are still writing songs, and new tune books are being put together. But it’s funny that you could spend all day singing in an old stone singing house and sitting on a bench, and you realize that someone else would have had the same feeling a hundred years ago.”

Gibney points out that Abraham Lincoln’s favorite hymn was from a Sacred Harp book that, according to poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg, the future president used to sing with a sweetheart.

While the texts and tradition are rooted in Christian imagery and references, the sessions are designed for something more. “You don’t have to have any religious affiliation,” says Riley. “You can or not. There are people who are Christian and there are those who are not who sing Sacred Harp. The words are religious, but they touch on more than religion. They deal with basic things like life and death and pain and suffering. Yet I really like the powerful sound of the music and the powerful sound that the group can create. The sound is so different.”

Gibney, like Lomax, calls the harmonies haunting and says they cover the same themes that poetry covers — life and death: the mysteries of being. Says Riley: “In Sacred Harp they call the words the poetry. Someone will say let’s do the poetry now, after the doing the shapes.”

The songs — or hymns or poems — selected this particular Sunday are taken from two hefty hard-bound books developed especially for Sacred Harp. The first is “Sacred Harp,” compiled in 1844 by Benjamin Franklin White. It contains more than 500 hymns and is dedicated to “all lovers of Sacred Harp music and to the memory of the illustrious and venerable patriarchs who established the traditional style of Sacred Harp singing and admonished their followers to ‘seek the old paths and walk them.’”

The other is “The Shenandoah Harmony,” which calls itself “a collection of sharp-note tunes, ancient and modern, for singing groups large and small.” It was originally published in 1815.

Interest in this singing community received a boost over the past decade. “Cold Mountain,” the Civil War-era drama that starred Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, used the singing in the film. So did Bruce Springsteen in his song “Death to My Hometown.”

Since the musical selections from the film, the Springsteen song, and other samples of Sacred Harp singing — including those recorded by Lomax — are available on YouTube and on other websites, the high tech Internet has been cited by Sacred Harp devotees as helping introduce a new audience to this old-school tradition.

Some Sacred Harp gatherings last all day (with some events attracting 100 to 200 singers), but the Lawrence session consists of two one-hour singing segments divided by a break.

The gatherings are designed to engage participation by being non-judgmental (though some people have more music background and interest than others). As Riley says, “People do the best they can and that’s fine. People shouldn’t feel intimidated about trying the group out. We’re very accepting. That’s part of the Sacred Harp tradition. You don’t criticize. Your job is to come and sing and do your best. We’re singing for the joy of it and being part of the tradition. That’s what keeps people coming back. The other fun thing for singers is that you can switch around and stretch your range. It’s not like you get assigned a seat and you can’t move. And it depends on what the group needs. The result isn’t always perfect. Not every song may come out wonderful from beginning to end. It takes time to learn this, but you have to devote some time to learning the songs. There’s plenty to work on. But it is fun.”

Another “fun” component is the break, when participants share refreshments, chat, and catch up about monthly activities. “There is really a community that grows out of singing together. You see people and then become friends. It is a way to connect wherever you go. If you go across the country, you can find a group. People connect through singing and socializing afterwards.”

The two think that this sense of coming together is why a number of younger people are getting involved, including Riley’s daughter, Julia. “It’s wonderful how many young people are getting involved in different areas of the country. In western Massachusetts there are a lot of college-age people getting involved. The same in Philadelphia: it’s a very urban experience. If they feel the same way that I do they’ll be singing in another 50 years. I shouldn’t be surprised that young people loved it, because I loved it,” says Gibney.

The break during my visit is over, and putting non-judgment and fellowship to the test, the group invites me to join them for the second hour.

I accept and find myself balancing the two hefty hymnals on my knees and rushing through pages as someone calls out a page. I have taken piano lessons, played trombone, and even had a short stint in a chorus, so I am not completely in the dark looking at the pages that included what looked like the standard voicing arrangements: bass, tenor, alto, and soprano. Since Sacred Harp has some unique notations, I was far from functioning but hanging on.

I start with the bass section and find the initial fasola sounding gives me the experience of already singing the work and making me feel prepared me to sing the lyrics.

But the going is bumpy. I am attempting to keep pace with foot beats and arm sweeps, trying to keep eyes on lines and lyrics, and hoping that I am coming close to harmonizing but thinking that I am more a voice crying in the wilderness.

Though I am inept, my persistence is paying off. While I am by no means a leader of any pack, I am at least crawling fast behind. Then we come to the last song: “Amazing Grace.” The familiar song first appeared as a shape-note song work in 1835. It is only now that I start to feel that I might be getting the hang of it. Amen.

Sacred Harp, Edith Chapel, Lawrenceville School. Every third Sunday, 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. except August.

Princeton All Day Singing on Saturday, Reformed Church at Highland Park, 19-21 South Second Avenue, Highland Park. Saturday, August 16, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

22nd Annual Garden State Sacred Harp Singing Convention, Montclair Friends Meetinghouse, 289 Park Street at Gordonhurst Avenue, Montclair. Friday, May 16, 7 to 9:30 p.m. (includes half-hour workshop on fasola singing), Saturday, May 17, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (potluck dinner; 12:30 p.m. and a Saturday Social in evening). Free. For more information, visit

For more information on the Sacred Harp at the Lawrenceville School, visit

Recommended for you