(Image from ITV News)
A friend of mine once called the Sacred Harp book a ticket to community. The book, the size and weight of a kitchen cutting board, collects generations of sacred anthems and hymns, and exists for the purpose of community singing rather than performance.
I have been singing Sacred Harp for three years now. When I moved to Belfast, I decided I would invite my friend Aldo Ceresa, a well-known Sacred Harp composer and workshop-leader from New York, to lead a weekend of lessons and singing. The weekend was very successful, attended by people from all over Ireland and North America.
I formed particularly strong friendships with the singers from Cork and was so thankful for their enthusiasm. Since then, I have been to Cork twice to sing. Both times I was offered housing, food, friendship, and the deepest and most selfless sense of hospitality. I consider the singers in Cork good friends. Despite whatever differences in nationality, culture or accent, we are a community together.
In November, the group I have been singing with for the last year here in Belfast, was invited to sing at the opening of the new Skainos Centre along the Lower Newtownards Road. We had just moved into the new building and were excited to be associated with the launch of such a remarkable church-led, cross-community, urban-regeneration project.
Upon invitation, we imagined singing before a handful of church leaders and a couple city councillors. The day of the event, however, while our nervous little group was preparing to share a few pieces from the tradition, we were told that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister would be in attendance. Along with the Lord Mayor, half the Assembly, every media outlet you could think of, and former paramilitary leaders.
I gave some opening remarks, commenting on how pleased we were to be included in such a special occasion. The music’s ethos, I said, is inclusive and democratic, allowing all voices, regardless of ability, to participate. I wanted to demonstrate that Sacred Harp and Skainos have similar values.
Later in the day I had a short conversation with Nelson McCausland. We laughed together about how, because of the tradition’s name, people often ask if it’s, you know, a Catholic thing?
Sacred Harp, despite its Protestant origins, really is an everybody thing, transcending boundaries of class, culture, and religion. But it also has strong Ulster Scots roots, and while talking to McCausland, I had a vision of a huge singing convention like the one I had attended in Cork set in Belfast at the Sakinos Centre.
Belfast is a gateway where British and Irish cultures converge, sometimes clash, and sometimes harmonise. To me, Sacred Harp has so much in common with Belfast’s history.
The American folklorist, Alan Lomax, speaking on the British and Irish roots of the tradition, says, “Some of them are really Welsh with Welsh choral style, and some of them are really Irish, with the Irish ability to embellish. And others foursquare singers from Aberdeenshire. Others Cornish men with the bosky sweet harmonies of Southern England. All these things are blended into the Sacred Harp singing book and singing fraternity.
“They have put together the whole of Britain. You know Britain is a culture of many cultures, but all those cultures were welded together in the Appalachians, in the square dance and in the religious music, particularly in the Sacred Harp. It sums them all up, it combines them all, and that takes a long time, it took 150 years, and that is a work of genius.”
What work of genius will bind the people of Northern Ireland together? I am sad to say it won’t be Sacred Harp. We will be leaving Skainos because of the recent violence along the Lower Newtownards Road. On Sunday night, we decided that the Lower Newtownards part of the city, despite our deep affections for the area, and great esteem for Skainos, is not a place we want to invite people to sing. There is still too much work to be done in Belfast. I’m confident that the wonderful people at Skainos will lead the community into brighter days. And when we get closer to that day, maybe we can return. Then we will all share this great ticket to community, soul-affirming music, and lifelong friendship together.