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Dayton Sacred Harp Singers

Photo by Alan Staiger
Annaliza Cull at a local 'singing.'

It’s the human voice that’s the sacred harp.  When a group of voices get together and turn up the volume, it can rattle the walls and make you feel like you’re on the inside of a musical instrument.

Shape Note, or Sacred Harp Singing, is a traditional form of a cappella folk music. It originated in England, later migrating to the northeastern United States in the mid-1800’s. From there it made its way to the deep south, where it put down roots and flourished.  In the last fifty years, the tradition has experienced a resurgence and spread throughout North America. This living tradition is thriving locally, thanks to the members of the Dayton Sacred Harp.

Michele Cull drives from Louisville, Kentucky to attend the monthly gatherings. “I got involved with this through two hobbies; through Shape Note and through Civil War reenacting,” Cull says, “I started slowly going to Singings and a couple of years later met Greg Howard and Vic Whisman at a reenactment.  They were singing around the fire, playing instruments.  And I had some books, ‘You all have to hear this, you’ll have to give this a try.’ Both were pretty good musically and they could pick up really quick and read.  So that Sunday morning, that was our church; singing Sacred Harp around the campfire.”

Greg Howard recalls, “We started singing out of this book. It was like we got hit with a bolt of lightning.  Fortunately, John Bayer heard that I was wantin’ to start a Singing in Dayton.  He called me up and we were singing to each other on the phone.  Vic and I went to John’s house.  It was John and his wife Lorraine, and their three children, who at that time were very young.  We just sat around their dinner table.  That was the very first Singing in Dayton.”

Fifteen year old Jubal Bayer was also at that dinner table. “I remember them coming to the house to meet Pa for the first time. For some reason I thought angels were coming,” Bayer says, “We started singing together, maybe four or five [people].  It only started getting beyond twelve, fifteen people four years ago, and from there it’s bloomed.”   

Since those first get-togethers back in 1999, the singers have grown from a handful of voices to as many as a hundred at a time.  At its core, the act of Sacred Harp singing is a social event, and it transcends religious beliefs or economic status. Everyone is welcome.

“It’s something that can’t be described. It really has to be experienced, because you don’t just hear it, you also feel it,” says Jeff Fyffe, a singer from Fairborn. “Sonic vibrations pulse through your body when you’re singing, and when you’re hearing this. It is just incredible.”

The singers arrange themselves in four sections of chairs all facing inward, toward an empty center. 

Fyffe says, “The fact that everybody is facing each other really is one of the aspects of this that makes it so enjoyable. You get to see the other people’s faces, and it’s so non-judgmental - If you can sing, great, if you can’t that’s fine too. You can just show up and join in, for your own personal enjoyment.  We’ll feed you real good!”

“Go a couple times it just gets its hooks into you,” says Susan Zurcher, of Dayton, “And the wonderful thing for me is that it’s not a rehearsal and it’s not a performance.  You just go and sing as a community, and that is just wonderful.

“The act of singing is good for your body,” Zurcher says, “There have been studies that show that laughing is good for your physical body, well so is singing.  And when you sing loudly, it just jazzes you up. Sometimes, like today on our first song, I had to stop because I was tearing up because it was just so beautiful.  I have to stop and collect myself and go on.”

“Its three hours. We sing, eat, and sing, and that’s a lot of fun,” she says, I just love it.”

Seven-year-old Annaliza Cull is what the singers call a ‘cradle-harper,’ someone whose parents are active Shape Note singers.  “I sang before I could talk, because I was born in the music,” Cull says, “Music was playing in the delivery room when I was born.”

Cull says she thinks there are enough cradle-harpers to continue the Shape Note tradition. One day, she might become a leader, “Seems like there’s something that I really like in it; just something special to me,” she says.

Hans Bayer, 17, was also born into the music. He agrees that there is special about Sacred Harp singing.

“If you’re singing and you can hear your neighbor, you’re not singing loud enough. You sing full voice,” Bayer says, “Full voice means you don’t control it or try to tone it down.  Just enough off to sound magical, an eerie quality, that makes it hang in the air.”

Bayer says this style is something he’d like to pass on to his own children.

“Traditions are a good thing. It helps break down generational barriers. It allows you to communicate things that you feel to other people,” he says, “That’s what it’s all about -community.  The music is just a medium for people to get together and enjoy each other’s company and to do something they love doing.”

For more information, visit DaytonSacredHarp.org