Launch of Sacred Harp singing at Sewanee attracts over 50 singers

People participate in Sacred Harp singing

By Isaac Sligh

Staff Writer

As evening falls at the assembly hall of Otey Memorial Parish in downtown Sewanee on September 27th, a unique sound emanates from the building. This is the sound of almost 60 individuals joining together in song, gathered there to sing Sacred Harp or “shape note” music, a tradition of hymn singing which dates back more than two hundred years. Shape note singing was a prominent force in rural American worship music up until the beginning of the twentieth century and has experienced a newfound popularity in the past few decades. One of Sacred Harp’s hallmarks is its use of “shape note” notation — notes are assigned syllables (fa, sol, la, and mi, marked by four different shapes) to denote their position within the major and minor scales and aid in reading the music effectively.

Members of the “class” (the traditional name for the assembled singers) sit in a hollow square of seats, each part (bass, tenor, treble, alto) occupying one side of the square. Each singer is invited to stand in the middle of the square and lead a song of their choice by “beating time” with their hand.

Two Sewanee students, Nathan Stewart (C’16) and Sarah Trumbore (C’18), are the primary organizers of this singing event, billed as the Inaugural Sewanee Sacred Harp Singing and Singing School. “Sacred Harp singing is a tradition that brings vastly different people together to sing and worship,” said Trumbore. “We wanted to bring this community to the Mountain, since it’s been so important in our lives.” The meeting brought together a large and diverse group of singers, many local but some from as far away as southern Alabama and Georgia. Old and young, beginners and veterans, religious or just simply lovers of the music — all joined together here at Sewanee to share in their common interest in this unique musical form. “Out of the 60 or so people that came, I was very pleased that many of them were local residents and college students,” said Stewart. “I hope to see even more next time from the university, but we were nonetheless impressed by the high number of first time singers, as well as their eagerness and the speed at which they picked up shape note singing.” “The four-shape system of notation was created in 1801 by Little & Smith in a book known as The Easy Instructor,” explained Stewart. “It’s easy because it makes learning how to read music more intuitive to the everyday man — more so than perhaps it would be picking up a musical instrument and learning to read that music.” Based on the success of this inaugural session, Trumbore and Stewart hope to continue leading Sacred Harp singings regularly throughout the upcoming academic year and beyond. “Everyone is welcome, regardless of musical or religious background, and we’re more than willing to teach those who want to learn. This is a community event and we want everyone to know that student, community member, and visitor alike is welcome. This is an inclusive, participatory tradition, and we’re interested in continuing on in this manner.” Sewanee Sacred Harp meets to sing on the fourth Sunday of each month. Their next meeting will be on October 24 at 5:30 p.m. in Convocation Hall, free and open to the public, refreshments provided. For more information, visit them on Facebook at

Vanessa Renwick: Hope

The University Art Gallery is pleased to present experimental DIY filmmaker Vanessa Renwick’s threechannel video installation Hope and Prey, on view in the UAG from October 23 through December 12, 2015.Hope and Prey features stunning wildlife cinematography of animals hunting and being hunted, transformed through black and white highcontrast recomposition.

The viewer is placed in a landscape inhabited by predators. As Renwick writes, “In this installation the audience definitely has to keep an eye out for Invoking the sublime, Hope and Prey has been described in The Brooklyn Rail as “a slow build toward oblivion that summons the awesome grandeur and the cold horror of the wild.” Portlandbased Daniel Menche composed the Please join us! Renwick and Prey will speak about her work on October 23, at 4:30 p.m. in Convocation Hall with a reception to follow, free and open to the public.

On November 9, there will be a public screening of Renwick’s film Charismatic Megafauna (2011) will play in the SUT at 7:30 p.m., cosponsored by Art Forum.

Charismatic Megafauna juxtaposes 16mm film footage from Renwick’s own life as a teenager in inner city Chicago living with a wolf dog alongside documentation shot by biologists reintroducing wolves to Western America in the late 90’s. We watch the wolf dog scavenging in the gutters of Chicago, and we watch humans performing the act known perversely as “wildlife management” on wolves. While the footage of captured wolves can be harrowing, the reintroduction program was successful, and some of the offspring of the captured and rereleased wolves are those filmed living freely in the wild in Hope and Prey. Seattle composer/cellist Lori Goldston performs the original score.

Based in Portland, Oregon, Vanessa Renwick is founder of the Oregon Department of Kick Ass ( Described as being “as punk rock as they come,” Renwick began making her low budget DIY films in the early 1980s. Her films have been screened nationally and internationally: in the U.S., Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and at venues ranging from the Centre Pompidou in Paris; France to The Museum of Jurassic Technology; and Los Angeles, CA. Renwick has been honored with several film festival awards, including “The DIY of All-time Award,” The Judges Award from the Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival from Mike Plante (2013), The Jim Demulling Speak Out Award for Best Social Awareness Documentary at the Humboldt Film Festival (2007), The Judges Award at the Northwest Film and Video Festival from Michael Almereyda (2005), and The Gus Van Sant Award for Best Experimental Film at the Ann Arbor Film Festival (2005). Her work has been the subject of career retrospectives in New York in 2011 at UnionDocs and Anthology Film Archives, and Raw, Raucous and Sublime: 30 Years Of Vanessa Renwick in Portland, Oregon in 2013. Renwick’s visit to Sewanee is part of her NSEW Film Tour: The West Heads East! Sewanee’s University Art Gallery is located on Georgia Avenue on the campus of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. The gallery is free, accessible, and open to the public. Hours are 10 – 5 Tuesday through Friday and12 – 4 on Saturday and Sunday. Please call (931) 5981223 for more information, or visit our website at