The Sacred Harp is a hymnal first published in 1844 by B.H. White. It has been in print continuously since then. It exists in two versions, the Denson revision and the Cooper revision, which have developed separately. The Denson revision is the more popular and the one I will address. The most recent edition of The Sacred Harp, the 1991 edition, contains tunes from the original 1844 edition as well as tunes by contemporary composers like Ted Johnson and Judy Hauff. The Sacred Harp was and is a collection of shaped-note hymns, some of which were written originally in shaped notes, others of which were shaped note transcriptions and arrangements of existing tunes, including American folk melodies and English hymns. Some familiar tunes that appear in The Sacred Harp are:
Plenary, the tune also known as Auld Lang Syne,
New Britain, a.k.a. Amazing Grace,
and Portuguese Hymn, also known as Adeste Fideles or O Come, All Ye Faithful, which began life as a Gregorian chant.
The hymns come from a variety of sources, and particularly from other shape note tunebooks like the Southern Harmony and the Missouri Harmony. The vast majority of the words seem to be written by Isaac Watts, but they also come from sources like Lloyd's Hymnal and even Alexander Pope. Other lyrical superstars include Samuel Stennet and William Cowper. The hymns range from beautiful to fiery to charming to hokey, and there's an honest-to-goodness temperance song that's a rollicking good time. Note that the songs are known by the tune name, which may be
entirely unrelated to the words.
The tunes are in three or four parts (treble, alto, tenor, bass), and the melody usually lies in the tenor. This may seem unusual, but it is not illogical given the singing practice of shape note music: both men and women sing tenor and treble, doubling in octaves.
The hymns in The Sacred Harp are not, in general, performed; sung in the traditional style, the singers sit in a square facing one another, with one vocal part on each side of the square. Clockwise from above, the order of the parts is tenor, bass, alto, treble. In the South, Sacred Harp singing is still used as a form of worship, especially in the Primitive Baptist tradition. In the North, where Sacred Harp singing has been re-discovered only in the last few decades, singers usually participate purely for enjoyment. Sacred Harp singers tend to be friendly and inclusive (except in Boston, according to reports), and I have sung regularly with atheists, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims (well, one Muslim), and Wiccans along with the usual hodgepodge of Christianity.
Sacred Harp music is usually sung either at a weekly or monthly "local singing" of a few hours (usually 2) or at annual conventions. These are all-day affairs that last either one or two days, with "dinner on the grounds" provided by the hosting singing community. This entails a fabulous potluck, except in the U.K., where Sacred Harp singing is a recent import and the food, by all accounts, tends to be bad.
Contemporary Sacred Harp singing is a peculiar thing, and fertile ground for study. Singers from early on have traveled to different conventions, but the northern singers and the southern singers constitute rather different cultures. Northern singers are usually well educated people interested in folk music or ethnomusicology or just interested in learning about new things. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and tend to have stumbled in on Sacred Harp by accident. They usually don't know anyone else who sings Sacred Harp and have to be clued in on everything. Southern singers are usually white Christians (generally Primitive Baptist) who have grown up singing and, often, come from a long family tradition of Sacred Harp singing. Many of them are older, since many of the younger generation have broken away. There is also an African-American ("colored") Sacred Harp tradition that has not caught on as well, probably because it is practiced by fewer people and because The Colored Sacred Harp is a much smaller book, less than half the size of The Sacred Harp. Southerners are often appalled by northern singers' disregard (or ignorance) of long-standing singing traditions; northern singers are often appalled by southern singers' uncouth comments about "women in men's clothing" (true story), etc. Sociologist Laura Clawson and ethnomusicologist Kiri Miller are both doing research on contemporary Sacred Harp practice.
There is a short section on "Rudiments of Music" at the beginning of the book. It is oblong, and the 1991 edition is burgundy with gold lettering. The "sacred harp" of the title refers to the human voice.
This information was gleaned from various people and experiences over the course of four years of Sacred Harp singing, but I'm sure I learned a lot of it from www.fasola.org.
I never thought I'd see the day Nicole Kidman sang Sacred Harp, but sure enough, some of this music is sung in the 2003 release Cold Mountain. Most reviews of the soundtrack to this film have mentioned the particular awesomeness of the two tracks sung by Sacred Harp singers at Liberty Baptist Church in Henagar, Alabama; these two songs are "Idumea" (p. 47) and "I'm Going Home" (p. 282). Tim Eriksen is a northern Sacred Harp singer; Cassie Franklin is a southern Sacred Harp singer.