The 1855 Presbyterian Church in Bentonsport, Iowa (photo by John Stimson)
How many times have you driven past a landmark or historic building in need of repair and thought to yourself, “Someone should do something about it!”
Recently, the members of Prairie Harmony of Southeast Iowa, an informal singing group based out of Fairfield, got to pitch in and help a structure in need. They knew that the belfry of the Bentonsport Presbyterian Church, where they often gathered to sing, needed repair. The historic building dates back to 1855, and the town’s improvement association was trying to raise $8,000 to restore the belltower to keep it in working order.
Prairie Harmony set to work. What did they give? Music!
Last fall, the 14 vocalists, half of whom hail from the Donnellson area, who make up the performing part of the singing group lent their voices to record a CD of their a capella sacred harp singing, with the proceeds going to the restoration project.
“We came together for the joy of singing in that beautiful, lively space and were inspired to record some of our favorite songs in an effort to support the restoration needs of the belfry,” says Jennifer Hamilton, Prairie Harmony Director.
Remarkably, the recording was done on site, at the church. As you listen to the CD, the vocal harmonies of “sacred harp” or “shape-note” singing echo off the barrel vault ceiling and the brick walls of the historic building.
An Extraordinary Recording
“Engineering the recording in the church because of the uniqueness of the singing space is also part of the story,” adds Doug Hamilton, Jennifer’s husband.
“Singing inside the church is like singing inside an instrument,” he says. “We were very lucky to have a theatrical sound designer from Yale [Brian MacQueen] visiting the area who volunteered his talent to record our group singing in the space.”
Several members of the Prairie Harmony group call Donnellson home, including Rebecca Bentzinger (now of Washington, DC), Robert Koepcke, Aaron Ratzlaff, Margo Pedrick, and Tony Peterman. Also on the recording are Craig and Susan Krebill from Primrose, and John Stimson, Sandy Stimson, Martha Kreglow, Jolynn Gates, Susie Niedermeyer, and the Hamiltons from Fairfield.
“Over a series of about six weeks, the group carpooled down to the church after work on Tuesday evenings to spend several hours singing and recording,” Doug says.
The CD was recorded in the traditional shape-note form, with the singers facing each other in a four-part square, singing to each other with the microphone in the middle. This presented new recording challenges.
“As shape-note singing is not often recorded, we felt that if people could hear how nice it sounds, even with amateur singers, that they might be inspired to try it for themselves,” Jennifer says. “For that reason, we recorded the music using the same formation that we usually sing in.”
Because of the uniqueness of the location, they battled with the seasonal trials of cold temperatures and a cicada migration that interfered with the sound. And they broke almost every rule in the sound recording how-to manual.
“Our hope is that the listener can then get an idea of what we hear when we sing together and what a profound pleasure that is,” Jennifer says. “Of course the music itself is so lovely and that the lyrics are beautiful and elevating contributes to the joy and love you can hear in us singing together.”
What is Sacred Harp Singing?
Often called “shape-note” singing because the written music uses differently shaped note heads for ease in sight-reading, the term “sacred harp” refers to the human voice.
The CD’s liner notes give some insight into the mysteries of this traditional type of music from the American colonial period, which Hamilton says has an “almost Medieval” sound.
“The distinctively American shape-note or ‘fa-so-la’ tradition is an old example of a capella community singing that is alive and well in the United States. With deep roots in Christian faith, these devotional songs were both entertainment and instructive, expressing a range of theology held by different sects that have composed music and lyrics in this style over the years.”
The writers of shape-note music come from many backgrounds and eras. Familiar names might be John Newton (who penned “Amazing Grace”), hymn writer Isaac Watts, and Justin Morgan of Morgan horse fame. Jennifer says shape-note music is being written yet today, and is even making a comeback. The Prairie Harmony CD offers a variety of selections from the 18th and 19th centuries, some with a Southern influence, as well as a few modern selections.
“It was a very interesting project taking historical songs from the era when that church was built and recording them now in the church,” Doug says.
So far, enough CDs have been sold to repay the production costs, which were provided by the Fairfield Folk Arts and Dance Co-op. CDs are now being provided to the Bentonsport Improvement Association for sale to the public.
The Beauty of Song
“I actually have another church in mind for another project,” Doug adds. “Mainly because this one was just so much fun.”
Right now, Prairie Harmony members are working on another recording, called Summerland, that will benefit local hospice work.
Doug and Jennifer sing tenor and alto and often enjoy singing together from memory during long car trips. Jennifer says shape-note singing is something anyone can do. The members of Prairie Harmony have been singing together for 15 years.
“It is a beautiful tool for community building,” she adds.
For more information about the CD or singing group, call (641) 472-8422, or visit http://fairfolk.org/prairieharmony.
Reprinted in part from an article in the Bee/Star Community Paper, Donnellson and West Point.
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