Various Artists

Religion Is a Fortune: Sacred Harp Singing

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Listening to the shape-note singing recorded -- mostly in the '20s and '30s -- on Religion Is a Fortune: Sacred Harp Singing is a lot like listening to The Anthology of American Folk Music. The sounds of male and female voices, rising and falling along a four-note scale, sound primitive, like something snatched from an earlier time in American history. If the various groups -- Allison's Sacred Harp Singers, Pioneer Sacred Harp Singers, and Daniels-Deason Sacred Harp Singers -- seem similar, that's because they all drew their material from similar sources, used little to no accompaniment (organ, piano), and specialized in a style of singing -- shape-note -- that originated in the early 1800s. As the "sacred" indicates, the style was adopted in churches to promote a higher quality of assembly singing, and all of the material concentrates on Protestant Christian themes. While the style might be described as uptempo but nonetheless dour hymn singing, the songs titles -- "Hallelujah," "Happy Land," and "Promised Land" -- rejoice in the splendors of the next life. The importance of Religion Is a Fortune is in its historical record of a central musical style that thrived in 19th century America and would become increasingly rare after these recordings were made (although the final recording of this collection was made in the early 1950s). The miracle is that record labels believed there was a market for shape-note singing and made these recordings at all. The sound quality is excellent and the liner notes by David Warren Steel informative. Religion Is a Fortune is another fine historical release by County.

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