In Song, Different Faiths Find Harmony
Spiritual Life Column
By Rich Barlow
January 26, 2008
Raised Jewish, Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg became an atheist in college. But as his grandfather lay dying four years ago, he found spirituality and solace in centuries-old Christian music.
The lyrics were from “Evening Shade,” in The Sacred Harp, the 1844 hymnal that bequeathed its name to this genre of music:
The day is past and gone
The evening shades appear
Oh may we all remember well
The night of death is near.
We lay our garments by
Upon our beds to rest
So death will soon disrobe us all
Of what we here possess.
Musing musically upon death as a communal experience touching us all “was really the only way that I dealt with the grief of my grandfather dying,” Pearlman Karlsberg recalled. While some hymns in “Sacred Harp” speak explicitly of Jesus, the Christian savior, the words of this more universal hymn “ran through my head without stop.”
Now, once a month, Pearlman Karlsberg, 26, treks three hours from his home in New York to Brookline to sing Sacred Harp with others at Christ Church Unity. This month’s sing gathered 30-plus people, half of whom appeared to be under 30, to the interdenominational church. The subject of a PBS documentary that aired in Boston earlier this month, Sacred Harp is a cappella, “shape note” singing in which notes are printed in four shapes, each corresponding to a specific musical syllable, either fa, sol, la, or mi.
The shapes make the music easy to read for nonmusicians. And the lack of an audience – Sacred Harp singers sing for themselves, not to perform – also appeals to many.
But what really invites the vocally challenged, and strikes a listener, is how singers belt out a hymn.
On the altar at Brookline this month, as he took his turn leading a round, Pearlman Karlsberg sang so exuberantly that you could see his tongue slapping the words from the roof and floor of his wide-open mouth. Many of the singers meanwhile chopped the air with a hand to keep time. Soles tingled from the vibrations of foot-tapping on the floor.
As voices boomed, the imagination grasped why no instruments are necessary: An organist’s accompaniment might have tipped the decibel level into eardrum-detonating territory.
“It’s such a full-bodied, experiential activity,” Pearlman Karlsberg said. “Instead of trying to restrain my voice, hold back and have a pretty, choral sound … we throw our whole spirit and our whole energy and our whole body into the singing.”
That gives Sacred Harp its majestic reverence, even if not everyone is on key. To hear a sample, go to bostonsacredharp.org, the Brookline group’s site, and click the link “Tom Malone’s SingIngalls.org.”
Listening to these laryngeal gymnastics, people seated in a square formation according to voice type, an observer gets a sense of community that explains how a 19th-century, Christian-pedigree music form is a draw for nonreligious 20-somethings and inspires them to travel distances to sing it.
“We collectively travel to whatever singings are reasonable for us to get to, and ’reasonable’ [has] a different definition in Sacred Harp singing,” said Joanna Lampert. “You create bonds with the people that you sing with, and they really become a family to you, through a tradition of singing the music the way it’s been for centuries.”
Lampert, 32, lives in Brookline and is observantly Jewish. Singing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” and others in the hymnal was hard at first. But she was warmly welcomed to Sacred Harp, where “you find your own meaning in the words,” she said.
“Definitely the text is Christian, [but] you have a connectedness to the music that only makes sense to you,” Lampert said. “I carry this music with me when I’m in temple and when I’m celebrating Jewish holidays, and I carry my Jewishness into the square when I’m singing.”
Even before the publication of “The Sacred Harp,” sacred shape-note singing was rooted in Colonial New England. As tastes for European-style classical music developed, the supposedly less-refined shape-note singing was elbowed out and driven to the rural South, the redoubt of Sacred Harp today.
A cadre of enthusiasts keeps the music alive in these parts; the Brookline group’s website lists regular Sacred Harp sings on the Cape and in Charlestown, Newton, and Providence.
Laura Borrelli, who lives in Cambridge and attends the Brookline sing, was raised Catholic. But regardless of one’s religious outlook, she said, once you step into that square of people to lead a hymn, “that is very much a religious experience for most people.”
“I think people get a good sense of love and closeness with their community,” Borrelli said. “People will take that as religiously as they want, but I think for some people, it is very religious.”