Sacred sound fills sanctuary

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mark Davis’ eyes welled up, hot with tears, as he described why 300 people would congregate to sing a cappella music throughout a hot summer day.

“If it’s in your heart to go sing, you go sing,” Davis said. “The opportunity to fellowship with others who have that same heritage is too great. Like many others, I’m carrying on a tradition that my forefathers left for me.”

Davis’ is president of the National Sacred Harp Singers. This year the group gathered at First Christian Church on Valleydale Road for the 30th-annual National Sacred Harp Singing Convention.

Several, like Hubert Nall of Birmingham, needed only to drive a few miles from home. For others, the music moved them so much they even chose to make the trek from as far as San Antonio, the United Kingdom and even Belgium.

The free event drew more than 300 people on its first day.

Many of the organizers said they had lower expectations for attendance this year because of the economic constraints many families are under. Davis of Pearl, Miss. said he was overjoyed to see the economy didn’t keep people away.

“We had a wonderful opening session,” Davis said. “One woman here today was even in a coma for several months. Her family stood around her hospital bed singing Sacred Harp hymns and she woke up.”

Sacred Harp singing is a cappella music practiced in the United States for almost 200 years. During the convention, the four parts — alto, soprano, bass and tenor — faced inward toward each other to fill the sanctuary with worshipful sound. About 100 songs were sung each day.

There are few songs called throughout a singing that do not resonate with someone, Nall said.

“It’s a music that will transport people back in their lives to other events,” Nall said. “Some of the music and phrases will trigger a thought that will be very meaningful to somebody and you’ll see someone sitting there with tears in their eyes. It truly touches people’s heart.”

Nall’s entire life has been marked by the music. His family sat around their home in rural Alabama when he was a child and sung Sacred Harp songs from memory. He said they would sing for hours with extended family.

“It was unthinkable for our group to get together and not sing,” Nall said.

Of Davis’ four great-grandfathers, two were Sacred Harp singers. This weekend, he and his wife brought their son and daughter, so they can pass the tradition on to them.

Organizers said they hope to bring the convention back to the area again next year.

For more information about the National Sacred Harp organization, contact Nall at or by phone at 822-0373.