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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

Sacred Harp Singers Bring A "Primal Sound" To San Antonio

Mike Hinton
Dan Brittain leads Sacred Harp singers at Coker United Methodist Church.

This weekend hundreds of singers will gather in San Antonio, but what they sing isn’t common. So much so that I had to look up Sacred Harp singing to be sure of what it was. After doing so, I caught up with a pair of its practitioners in a noisy Portland Oregon train station.

"It’s an old southern hymn tradition that’s still alive, and in the last 10 or 20 years has broken out of the south and taken root worldwide," said John Berendzen.

Jessica Beer describes it this way:

"The earliest form of American music created by the first European immigrants who came here. It’s an intensely uplifting experience," she said.

"It’s a very primal sound," Berendzen added, "a very, very large, brash, joyful sound."  

It varies in many ways from choir singing, including the fact that when they sing, they’re not really performing for others.

"This is not a performative practice," Beer said. "It’s for experience rather than performance.”

“So the magic isn’t in the hearing of it. It’s in the singing of it?” I asked.

“Those of us who sing it think so!” she said.

Berendzen said their gatherings can be quite intense.

“150-200 people in a room singing this at the top of their lungs -- literally the book in your hands is shaking. It’s kind of like singing in a tornado,” Berendzen said.

Berendzen and Beer are en route to San Antonio to participate Saturday and Sunday at the Convention of the Texas Sacred Harp Singers at the Coker United Methodist Church.

“Singing starts at 9:30 a.m., goes to 3:30 p.m.. There’s a lunch at twelve—free lunch. By the way, the lunch itself is legendary. It’s the best food known to humankind," Berendzen said.

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii