Go to Harrisonburg, Virginia and you’ll find them in just about any of the numerous old, old Mennonite churches in the area. They’re “Old Folks Singings,” an event unique to that religious group in that region. People filter in and out of the one-room churches, picnic in the church yard, rub tombstones if the church has a cemetery. And sing hymns. In some communities there is 100 per cent participation in the singing. Their songbook is and has been since 1832 The Harmonia Sacra. No other hymnal in the English language has had such a long lifespan of constant use in any Christian denomination. Indeed, many of the families of Harrisonburg have also been in the area since the mid-1800’s — Buckwalters and Hosslers, Stutzmans and Brubakers.
The original Harmonia Sacra was a “four-shape” shape note book using the shapes and syllables “faw, sol, law, and mi.” Joseph Funk designed A Compilation of Genuine Church Music for use in singing schools. It contained 208 pages, including rudiments of music and tunes harmonized for three voices. In the early 20th century the singing consisted primarily of German hymns; however, not the slow tunes used in the church services. The 17th edition of 1878 was the one widely in use during the Depression era.
“The different musical grammar of these hymns makes them sound fresh, rugged, and often rough-hewn. As the layout suggests, this music is written as melodic parts, not in chords. Each line is an individual composition against the principal melody… In this style of hymnody each singer chooses any line which is comfortable, and then focuses on expressing that part, that personalized manifestation of the words. The parts do not necessarily form the identifiable and static chords which a modern congregation might encounter together in an improvised harmonization.”
—Review of The Harmonia Sacra, 25th ed.
Bradley Lehman, 1995 for Mennonite Quarterly Review