Image: Minnesota State Sacred Harp Singing Convention, Northern Spark, Flickr (Creative Commons)
Every month in Melbourne a Sacred Harp group meets to sing. We sit in a square formation (altos facing tenors, sopranos facing basses) and read from a thick book containing very old American hymns. I have been twice now.
One thing that is distinctive about Sacred Harp singing is that there is absolutely no value placed on the aesthetic quality of one’s voice. You just sing your part and sing it loud, and however it comes out is the way that God intended it. Squawky, gravelly, nasally, clear – none of that matters in the slightest, as long as you’re singing.
This is such a contrast to the way we usually think about voices! In this culture, we make a distinction between those who ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ sing. Those with voices deemed beautiful are celebrated and encouraged to sing on their own, while those with voices deemed bad are told to shut up. Generally people internalise this idea of having a terrible voice and won’t let themselves sing in public. They will often mock the sounds they make.
There is a symmetry here to the way we think about bodies: that some are beautiful and some are not. The aesthetically pleasing ones should put themselves on show, while the ‘ugly’ ones should cover up.
What does this do to us, when we believe we need to hide our bodies, or our voices?
And what does it mean for our society, that some people believe it better for everyone if they don’t open their mouth?