Singers from region focus on centuries-old music

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When Darlene Dalton’s mother was dying, she stood at the bedside with her extended family and sang “O Sing to Me of Heav’n” in four-part harmony. The song is preserved in “The Sacred Harp,” a 19th-century book of shape-note hymns.

“We do that for our people as they’re dying: we sing,” said Ms. Dalton, 59, of Portersville, Butler County. 

Her family in Alabama and Georgia kept singing this traditional American music as it was going extinct in the middle of the 20th century. It has since made a comeback among folk musicians, and at 10 a.m. Saturday, Ms. Dalton will join singers from Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia for the Western Pennsylvania All-Day Sacred Harp Singing at the Covenanter Church, which is part of the Depreciation Lands Museum in Hampton. The event starts at 10 and will end at 3:30. Anyone is welcome to listen or sing. 

Organizer Penny Anderson, 63, of Wilkinsburg, said the singers, many of whom meet once a month in Oakland, are trying out the acoustics of the 19th-century church. They will move the pews so that the treble, alto, tenor and bass sections face each other.

“You’re really not doing it for an audience,” said Gerry Hoffman, 54, of Edinboro, a singer and co-organizer. 

Mr. Hoffman emphasized that although the songs are explicitly Christian, Sacred Harp is also a way to build community.

“People of different denominations will sit together and sing while they would never go to church together,” he said. He identifies himself as a nontheist. 

For Ms. Dalton, it remains a religious practice.

“It’s part of my worship services; it’s part of my memory of my parents,” she said.

But she very much admires the work of those like Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Anderson who have brought the tradition back to life outside of the South: “Now there’s another whole family history that has started. People who stumbled across a book in the library or who were invited by someone — now they’re passing it on to their children and grandchildren.”

For more information: pennsylvaniasacredharp.com or email pgh_sacred_harp@fastmail.net.


Eric Boodman: eboodman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3772

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