Matt & Erica Hinton,
Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp
(Awake, 2006)

The Sacred Harp is the name of an 1844 hymn book written in America. In it, music notation is written in four different shapes. The "sacred harp" also refers to human voice, a natural God-given instrument. This DVD documentary reveals the power of the human voice in sacred harp singing, giving us a modern look at a cherished tradition.

This type of singing appears to be one of the oldest musical traditions in America, and according to the tone of this documentary, it's a long way from dying out. Filmmakers Matt and Erica Hinton capture samples of the singing, interview people who participate regularly and reveal some explanation about what makes this form of art and worship so special to the people involved.

Even though I get a feeling this documentary just touches the surface as a basic introduction to the living tradition of sacred harp singing, the documentary delves more deeply into the human stories. It stirs the waters and promises many more human stories about how this music has been passed on and its place in peoples' lives. More than anything, the documentary shows a positive side, especially the sense of community and the enthusiasm of the singers.

Though the singing is religious with the hymnal as a tool, religious tenets and doctrines, if there are any attached, are not described. Some websites describe the practice of sacred harp singing as nondenominational. That is touched on briefly in the film.

Viewers can expect to be charmed by the joy and gusto of the singers and the sincerity of those interviewed, and they will appreciate that this is not a look at the musical artistry of "performance." Instead, it's a wonderful look at people busy in a communal activity with a component of personal offering. I like how this film reminds us the world is not only as we see it in the media. It shows us that good things, sincere people and creative musical arts bring joy beyond measure when brought together and shared.

This is something new for your music library -- a DVD with a look at a cappella singing tradition from the southern USA and how it exists in modern times.

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review by
Virginia MacIsaac

19 January 2008

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