From the red brick sanctuary of St. Francis Episcopal Church came music that sounded as if it were from another century.

The tones were nasal yet soulful. The lyrics were somewhat Puritanical, but there also was something unrestrained in them.An unconventional collection of 50 folks assembled recently on a clear Saturday morning to keep alive Sacred Harp music, a 300-year-old folk art that is winning widespread new favor among urbanites.

Sitting in the traditional "hollow square," in which singers are divided into four facing sections of tenors, altos, sopranos and basses, the vocalists came to sing and worship.

And they were serious about it.

Take the rendition of "Happy Christian," led by Andre Albers of Austin during the morning session of the daylong gathering, called a "singing."

Albers stood up, walked to the middle of the group and opened a bound hymnal. "Page 339," he said, "bottom of the page."

The others flipped through the song books.

Without a prompt, a man in one of the front rows sang a note. Others found their pitch and joined in.

Within seconds, Albers was transformed into a human metronome, conducting the chorale by moving his left arm up and down, counting time.

Finally, after a few minutes of singing syllables, the chorale began singing the lyrics:

"Oh, how happy are they,

Who their saviour obey

And have laid up their treasures above;

Tongue can never express

The sweet comfort and peace

Of a soul in its earliest love."

And so it went for hours as Albers and others led the group through a song marathon, with each new composition evoking the contradictory styles and emotions that make Sacred Harp distinctive.

In some of the songs were traces of primitive chants; in others, overtones of dour Calvinist dirges.

The crowd's diversity showed the wide appeal of the music.

Part devotional and part community sing-along, Sacred Harp has long been tied to the fundamentalist traditions of the Deep South. It's enjoying a resurgence in cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, where converts - mainly folk art enthusiasts and a cross-denominational crowd of urban churchgoers - flock by the hundreds to annual singings.

Greg Economides, St. Francis music director, arranged this day's event after hearing the music at two Sacred Harp conventions.

"You've got a room of people singing at the top of their lungs and the effect is a lot different from the controlled volume of a church choir," Economides said.

Sacred Harp has its roots in Anglo-Celtic folk music, which was incorporated into medieval European church music.

It came to the United States in the 17th century. Much of the Sacred Harp repertoire dates back to those early music books.

In 18th century New England, music instructors hit upon the idea of teaching untrained vocalists to sing without teaching them the complicated rules of music, according to a history by Steven Sabol of Washington, D.C.

The idea was to use different shaped notes - a triangle for fa, an oval for sol, a square for la and a diamond for me - to teach seven-note octaves. Hence the other name for Sacred Harp music - "shape-note singing."

Usually, the alto and tenor parts are written to support the lead soprano or bass, Economides said. But in Sacred Harp, "Each of the parts is in itself an interesting part to sing."

The style is called polyphonic and the effect, Economides said, is the opposite of barbershop harmonies, which are called homophonic and where the notes are close in tone and seem to blend together.

View Comments

Sacred Harp is always a capella and there's always a song leader in the middle of the hollow square.

Anyone can lead and everyone who signs up can do so. The leader chooses the song from one of several standard hymnals and decides how it's to be performed.

Singers here gave different reasons for attending.

"It just grabs you," said Dalton Clanton of Baytown, who started singing after hearing about it from his in-laws seven years ago. "I like the people. I like the songs. It's sort of like you can actually feel the spirit."

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