The Sacred Harp
Set in the rural southern states of America, photographer Johnathon Kelso explores the cultural heritage and practice of The Sacred Harp within church going communities. First published in 1844 by B. F White and E. J King, The Sacred Harp songbook became the first and defined as the best shape-note songbook in southern America. For 150 years this songbook has brought people together as they sing with one another to their God. After fears that The Sacred Harp was going out of fashion as people leaned towards other ways of singing and expressing their joy for god, a surge has taken place and now the book is seemingly as popular as ever. What we find within Kelso’s work (who is a regular singer of The Sacred Harp himself) is an inside look behind a seemingly open armed community.
What one finds as the work begins to unfold is how important the tradition of singing the songs from this prolific songbook are to the local people, portraits of church goers stand proudly with their copy of The Sacred Harp. But with pride aside, it is easy to understand why these small rural communities come together and have done with one book for so many years. The practicing of The Sacred Harp is only part of why these families and friends come together, it’s a chance to see familiar faces, drink and eat with one another and enjoy the company of others. It just so happens in the presence of their god as each song celebrates life and the message of Christianity.
So, what can one take away from this body of work? If there is one thing Kelso’s images evoke is a sense of togetherness, pride and that regardless of age and sex we can all come together to celebrate life and each other’s company.
All images are copyright of Johnathon Kelso
Words by Harry Rose