Located along a sandstone plateau at the end of the Appalachians in northeastern Alabama, Sand Mountain is a rural place that loves its traditions.
It's no surprise then that the powerful sacred harp choral singing has been a community tradition in this place for as long as anyone can remember. David Ivey, leader of the Sand Mountain Sacred Harp Singers, grew up with it in his family.
“The question wasn't so much what do you sing, but do you sing,” Ivey says. “Most people in today's society think they can't sing. That wasn't a limitation for us.”
Sacred harp singing, or shape-note singing, started in England in the 18th century and has survived, independent of any denomination, as a community event mostly in the American South. It involves the singing of four-part hymns using musical notation in distinct shapes (the fa-so-la) to aid in sight reading. The poetry used from the book that gives it its name, “The Sacred Harp,” is mostly from English hymn writers of the 18th century.
“It's bare-knuckle, plain poetry that goes back to a time when folks had to face death on a daily basis,” Ivey says. “People dealt with it head-on.”
The singers don't consider it a performance, but sit in a hollow square formation with one voice part on each side all facing inward. “We're singing for the sake of the singers … and we never call it an audience, we call them listeners,” Ivey says. “We also encourage anyone to join us if they want.”
The festival has been trying to bring the 20 Sand Mountain singers to Richmond since its first year, but it was too expensive to fly them here. The answer? Let's just say it involves a really rollicking bus. Once in Richmond, another 10 to 20 Sacred Harp singers from around Virginia will join them in song.
“I just hope the bus driver likes singing,” Ivey says, laughing.