Alfred Marcus Cagle (d. 1968)
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Alfred Marcus Cagle (d. 1968)

Band Folk Americana


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"Give me that Old-Time Singing"

One Saturday in January, a well-dressed man strolling Manhattan's recently gentrified Lower East Side unexpectedly found his way blocked by 35 people singing on the sidewalk. The lyrics were somber--"Then shall the dust return ... to God who gave it"--but the delivery was joyful. Asked what he thought was going on, he ventured, "I dunno. A funeral?"

Actually, it was a resurrection. The singers--housewives, ex-punkers, Evangelicals, atheists, Jews andBuddhists waiting for their usual venue above a local bar to open--were devotees of a Christian four-part choral style called Sacred Harp (the name refers to the human voice and a songbook published in 1844). Once America's dominant religious music, it was eclipsed after the Civil War. By 1960, say scholars, as few as 1,000 people clustered in the Deep South knew the style.

Yet today there are some 20,000 devotees across the country singing songs like Pisgah and Weeping Sinners. The website lists a "singing" near you on almost any weekend. A documentary, Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, is airing on more than 120 public TV stations, and an album is in the works featuring alt-folk god Sufjan Stevens, alt-country hero Jim Lauderdale and (!) Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones.

This kind of thing has precedent. In 1997 the album The Buena Vista Social Club hit big with a sound defunct even in its native Cuba. In 2000 the old-timey twang of the Coen Brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? grabbed a handful of Grammys. How do you revive an art form? A few hints:

Be weird--but worthy.

Nothing is weirder than Sacred Harp. Its favored subject matter--the pilgrim, the grave, Christ's blood--is stark; its style--severe fourths and otherworldly open fifths--has been obsolete for more than a century. Its notation, in which triangles, circles and squares indicate pitch, looks like cuneiform. Yet it exudes power and integrity. Five people sound like a choir; a dozen like a hundred. It is one of the most democratic choral forms: no audience, no permanent conductor--just people addressing one another and God.

Get Lomaxed.

Almost every revived American folk-music form was once recorded for the Library of Congress by musicologist Alan Lomax. He taped Sacred Harp in 1942 and '59. Unlike other finds such as Leadbelly, it failed to spark during the 1960s folk revival, but musicologists were infected. Now the form had imitable LPs and an academic beachhead.

Attract hip advocates.

In the early 1990s, punk rockers, says singer Tim Eriksen, "were looking for that kind of intensity in other music." Eriksen's band, Cordelia's Dad, and other postpunks seized Sacred Harp and exported it to trendsetting places from Northampton, Mass., to Portland, Ore.

Score a patriarchal blessing.

Bob Dylan made a pilgrimage to Woody Guthrie. Decades later, Southern Sacred Harp royalty generously embraced the wild-eyed newcomers--many of whom were nonbelievers--in what Awake My Soul co-director Matt Hinton calls "red-state, blue-state harmony."

Procure product placement.

T-Bone Burnett, who shaped the sound of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, did the same on Anthony Minghella's Civil War film Cold Mountain. Minghella hired Eriksen to sing a non-Harp song but was lured to Harp mecca Henagar, Ala. One result, Idumea, plays hauntingly over a battle scene--and won a new batch of fans. "I went in because of Jude Law but left with Sacred Harp," says New Yorker Anna Hendrick, 22.

After 45 minutes on the sidewalk, Hendrick and the other Manhattan harpers move inside and dig in. Singings can last two days. Today the group logs just three hours. "Join in a song in sweet accord," advised one of the afternoon's tunes. And so they did. - Time Magazine. January 17th, 2008

"In song, Different Faiths find harmony"

Raised Jewish, Jesse Pearlman became an atheist in college. But as his grandfather lay dying four years ago, he found spirituality and solace in centuries-old Christian music.
more stories like this

The lyrics were from "Evening Shade," in "The Sacred Harp," the 1844 hymnal that bequeathed its name to this genre of music:

The day is past and gone The evening shades appear Oh may we all remember well The night of death is near. We lay our garments by Upon our beds to rest So death will soon disrobe us all Of what we here possess.

Musing musically upon death as a communal experience touching us all "was really the only way that I dealt with the grief of my grandfather dying," Pearlman recalled. While some hymns in "Sacred Harp" speak explicitly of Jesus, the Christian savior, the words of this more universal hymn "ran through my head without stop."

Now, once a month, Pearlman, 26, treks three hours from his home in New York to Brookline to sing Sacred Harp with others at Christ Church Unity. This month's sing gathered 30-plus people, half of whom appeared to be under 30, to the interdenominational church. The subject of a PBS documentary that aired in Boston earlier this month, Sacred Harp is a cappella, "shape note" singing in which notes are printed in four shapes, each corresponding to a specific musical syllable, either fa, sol, la, or mi.

The shapes make the music easy to read for nonmusicians. And the lack of an audience - Sacred Harp singers sing for themselves, not to perform - also appeals to many.

But what really invites the vocally challenged, and strikes a listener, is how singers belt out a hymn.

On the altar at Brookline this month, as he took his turn leading a round, Pearlman sang so exuberantly that you could see his tongue slapping the words from the roof and floor of his wide-open mouth. Many of the singers meanwhile chopped the air with a hand to keep time. Soles tingled from the vibrations of foot-tapping on the floor.

As voices boomed, the imagination grasped why no instruments are necessary: An organist's accompaniment might have tipped the decibel level into eardrum-detonating territory.

"It's such a full-bodied, experiential activity," Pearlman said. "Instead of trying to restrain my voice, hold back and have a pretty, choral sound . . . we throw our whole spirit and our whole energy and our whole body into the singing."

That gives Sacred Harp its majestic reverence, even if not everyone is on key. To hear a sample, go to, the Brookline group's site, and click the link "Tom Malone's"

Listening to these laryngeal gymnastics, people seated in a square formation according to voice type, an observer gets a sense of community that explains how a 19th-century, Christian-pedigree music form is a draw for nonreligious 20-somethings and inspires them to travel distances to sing it.

"We collectively travel to whatever singings are reasonable for us to get to, and 'reasonable' [has] a different definition in Sacred Harp singing," said Joanna Lampert. "You create bonds with the people that you sing with, and they really become a family to you, through a tradition of singing the music the way it's been for centuries."

Lampert, 32, lives in Brookline and is observantly Jewish. Singing "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" and others in the hymnal was hard at first. But she was warmly welcomed to Sacred Harp, where "you find your own meaning in the words," she said.

"Definitely the text is Christian, [but] you have a connectedness to the music that only makes sense to you," Lampert said. "I carry this music with me when I'm in temple and when I'm celebrating Jewish holidays, and I carry my Jewishness into the square when I'm singing."

Even before the publication of "The Sacred Harp," sacred shape-note singing was rooted in Colonial New England. As tastes for European-style classical music developed, the supposedly less-refined shape-note singing was elbowed out and driven to the rural South, the redoubt of Sacred Harp today.

A cadre of enthusiasts keeps the music alive in these parts; the Brookline group's website lists regular Sacred Harp sings on the Cape and in Charlestown, Newton, and Providence.

Laura Borrelli, who lives in Cambridge and attends the Brookline sing, was raised Catholic. But regardless of one's religious outlook, she said, once you step into that square of people to lead a hymn, "that is very much a religious experience for most people."

"I think people get a good sense of love and closeness with their community," Borrelli said. "People will take that as religiously as they want, but I think for some people, it is very religious." - The Boston Globe, January 26th 2008

"Concerts by (and for) Singers"

IN the folk tradition of Sacred Harp music, the “harp” refers to the voice — many, many voices, usually, of people who have come together to sing, a capella, in glorious four-part harmony. Together, they are carrying on a style of singing that has survived in American communities for hundreds of years, long enough to enjoy renewed popularity in the 21st century.

Also known as shape-note singing — because its text is a songbook published in 1844 that uses a system of printed shapes to aid people without musical training — the singing that came to be known as Sacred Harp can actually be traced further back, to Colonial New England and to England before that. Its unique sound, dense and almost eerily spiritual, contains unusually melodic harmonies, and can be described as Gregorian chant meets bluegrass.

In early America, this style of singing moved south and took hold in a number of states including Georgia, where it took the name Sacred Harp, and was preserved in rural churches long after fading away elsewhere. Musical scholars who rediscovered it in the 20th century were fascinated that such an artifact had survived. Charmed, new adherents soon took up the tradition.

Today’s fans are not necessarily religious — just passionate about singing. Opportunities to take part abound through local “practice sings,” or “singings,” held monthly or even weekly in towns and cities in more than 30 states, as well as Canada and Britain. Local sings also have annual singing conventions, as they are called, generally lasting two days and attracting participants of all types and ages.

“You’ll see 70- and 80-year-olds from the South, plain folk from the Midwest and young hip guys from New England,” said Buell Cobb, 62, author of “The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music” (1978). “The fact that it just cuts across demographic lines is so amazing.”

Mr. Cobb, a retired BellSouth public relations director, is also an organizer of the three-day National Sacred Harp Convention in Birmingham, Ala., in June, which is open to anyone and typically draws 400 to 700 people from 25 states, he said.

Most of the songs are unfamiliar to singers outside the tradition, though at least one hymn sung in Sacred Harp groups, “Amazing Grace,” is well known. For newcomers, Mr. Cobb explained, a first encounter with the “powerful and elemental” sound can inspire many different reactions. “Some will say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’ while others will say, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful,’ ” he said. “And then there is a certain, small percentage of people who say, ‘I must do this.’ ”

Aldo Ceresa of Brooklyn, 36, an online book and music reseller, first heard a recording of Sacred Harp five years ago and is now a regular at local sings in Brooklyn, Manhattan and New Jersey and at annual sings around the country. “A good annual sing has 90 to 100 songs a day,” he said. He is now organizing the third annual New York City All-Day Singing for September.

Sacred Harp singers sit in what’s called a hollow square, with one voice part (treble, alto, tenor, bass) on each side, all facing center and toward one another, and singing out loudly. Individuals take turns standing in the center to lead. Anyone is welcome to listen or take part; copies of the traditional songbooks are usually on hand.

A schedule of singings across the country is maintained by the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association on the Web site (from the Sacred Harp learning tones fa, so and la). In San Francisco, the Golden Gate Singing Convention takes place tomorrow. A flier lures in newcomers by saying: “The harmonies achieved by these untrained early American composers were so rich and delightful as to border on the sinful.” Coming in May are conventions at the University of Chicago and in Montclair, N.J.

Summer brings Birmingham’s convention, as well as the fourth year of Camp Fasola. Created by the Alabama-based Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association, a nonprofit collective, the camp is a five-day singing getaway for adults and children, with time for swimming, fishing and hiking.

“It’s all about fellowship — and the music, of course,” said Jeff Sheppard, 76, president of the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association and a third-generation shape-note singer. “I could not tell you how many singings I’ve been to in my life.” Each is equally compelling, he said, though he discerns one main regional difference: “They sing awfully fast up north.”
- The New York Times, March 8th 2007


Still working on that hot first release.



A.M. Cagle is one of the most important 20th century composers of Sacred Harp music. This EPK contains a proposal (click on SET LIST above) for Rounder Records (or another indepedent label specializing in American roots music) to record and release his complete works performed by the voices of traditional Sacred Harp singers.

Sacred Harp music is a uniquely American form of sacred polyphony that has been described as "gregorian chant meets bluegrass" and "heavy metal choral music." This raw and unrestrained style has a sonic appeal which crosses over from intellectuals on university campuses to punk-rock and alternative rock bands who increasingly cite Sacred Harp's raw texture and spiritual power as an tonal influence.

As you can hear by sampling the audio selections above, Cagle's tunes are among the most arrestingly beautiful and distinctive of all 20th Century Sacred Harp composers, spanning six decades between 1908 and 1968, during which he was a mentor to the young Hugh Mcgraw, who has now been the executive secretary of the Sacred harp publishing company for over 50 years. His music has been recorded by popular choral ensembles such as Chanticleer and Word of Mouth Chorus.

The author of this proposal is Tom Malone, Sacred Harp singer and American music scholar who has researched the life and music of Mr. Cagle gathering materials for a afternoon session of his music in Anniston Alabama with those that knew him and sung with him, an event which was the inspiration for proposing this recording project.

The purpose of this project (and proposal, see again SET LIST above) is to bring the full breadth of Mr. Cagle's music (published and unpublished) to a wider audience and to record his tunes with traditional singers including many voices of those that knew him. Tom Malone would coordinate the recording sessions with the singers and prepare the unpublished manuscripts.

The resulting recordings would appeal to fans of American folk music, avant gard composers, EMO indie-rock bands who cite Sacred Harp as an infuence, and the broad community of Sacred Harp singers and devotees of acoustic music and sacred harmony.