“Remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love…” Thessalonians 1:3
The Biblical expression “a labor of love” may have become a contemporary cliché. But it really is the best way to describe Awake, My Soul, the feature-length documentary about Sacred Harp singing made by Matt and Erica Hinton.
In fact, you could say that the project went well beyond their dedication to this powerful, haunting music to symbolize their love for each other. During the seven years it took to complete the film, the couple got married and had a baby while immersing themselves in Sacred Harp singing.
Sitting in the living room of their modest bungalow in Atlanta’s West End neighborhood, Erica jokes that it should be pretty evident that Awake, My Soul was undertaken as a work of faith rather than for monetary rewards. Their involvement in the rather obscure but enduring Southern tradition began slowly, they say, shortly after they met at Georgia State University, where Erica was studying English and film and Matt was studying religion and English.
Matt, who teaches religion at Morehouse College and plays guitar in the spiritually-inclined rock band, Luxury, had been going to a few of the all-day Sacred Heart gatherings, called singings. He suggested a visit to one might make a good subject for Erica’s documentary film class, and they ended up shooting a ten-minute short.
“But we realized that ten minutes wasn’t enough to tell the story,” Erica says. “We couldn’t even record a whole song in that time. So we decided to keep going with it. And whenever we would go to a singing, we would film it and do interviews.”
Narrated by country singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale, Awake, My Soul offers a concise and cogent history of Sacred Harp. But it also gives viewers an intimate, emotionally charged insider’s view of many of the singers who are keeping the music alive — including important Sacred Harp songster Raymond Hamrick of Macon.
Also known as shape-note singing, the mysterious, full-voiced “fasola” harmony sound has roots in Elizabethan England and Colonial America. But since the 1800s, it has mostly survived and been nurtured in religious communities in the rural South — with what scholars consider its epicenter hidden in plain sight in simple, wooden country churches in West Georgia and Alabama.
That vital branch of the tradition takes its name from an oblong tome titled “The Sacred Harp.” First published by B. F. White and E. J. King. in 1844, the tunebook contains hundreds of four-part a cappella hymns, odes and anthems written in a system of four shapes — triangle (fa), circle (sol), rectangle (la), and diamond (mi) — that take the place of standard notation.
“In the film, someone says it takes four years to learn how to sing Sacred Harp,” Matt says. “I think that’s really true. That was part of our learning curve.”
The Hintons allow that the biggest reason Awake, My Soul took so long to finish was because they were going to school and working at the same time. But another part of the equation was that they essentially taught themselves filmmaking through the process of making the film, much the way singers learn Sacred Harp songs by singing them.
“We are not filmmakers who were looking for a subject” says Matt. “The subject found us. We loved this music from the outset. The fact that nobody had made a documentary about Sacred Harp singing seemed absurd to us.”
Working on Awake, My Soul as participant observers, the Hintons became proficient and passionate Sacred Harp singers. And they still go to singings on weekends and annual Sacred Harp conventions during the summer.
“We learned about sacred harp in a natural way,” says Erica. “And truthfully, I got really tired of us bringing a camera. At some point, singing became more of a priority than the film.”
More information about Sacred Heart singing and copies of Awake, My Soul on DVD are available on the website: www.awakemysoul.com. A CD companion to the film, I Belong to This Band: Eighty-Five Years of Sacred Harp Recordings, is available from Dust-to-Digital: dust-digital.com/sacred-harp.htm