The joy of singing Sacred Harp

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Photographer Johnathon Kelso started singing Sacred Harp music in 2010

The a capella music, based on a 19th-century hymnbook, has flourished in the South

CNN  — 

Anyone can sing Sacred Harp music, says photographer Johnathon Kelso, who started singing it himself just a few years ago.

“You can come to a singing and totally be tone-deaf, and we will never hear you because we sing so loud,” said Kelso, who is based in Atlanta. “It’s a beautiful place for anyone to come.”

Movies such as “Cold Mountain” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” have brought the genre to the forefront in recent years. The a capella (voice-only) music is named after “The Sacred Harp,” a 19th-century hymnal that was printed in shape notes to make it easier for everyday people to read music.

People have been singing these hymns in the South for more than 150 years, but Kelso says the tradition is non-denominational and open to everyone in the community.

Photographer Johnathon Kelso

“It may be people there who are atheists singing next to Christians. You might have a married man with his husband sitting next to me and my wife. It’s a crazy, crazy mix of people coming together to sing together as one voice, to sing these songs about Christ,” said Kelso, who was in a punk-rock band in his youth. “That, I think, may not be together in any other context. It’s the most eclectic group of people that come together, and we have this beautiful unity.”

Kelso started singing Sacred Harp in 2010. He said he started taking photos of the community soon after that “to capture the joy and the celebration of who is singing this music.”

He learned about the genre from a friend who loves to sing, and he just fell in love with it.

“You can open (‘The Sacred Harp’) and sing a song like ‘Amazing Grace,’ which dates back to the 1600s, alongside a song written in the 1990s,” he said. “Because of its breaths of fresh air that have been introduced into the book throughout its lifetime, it’s been a mainstay within the shape-note singing community.”

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    Sacred Harp singers face one another when singing, unlike a traditional choir that usually faces a band or music director.

    Kelso says one of his favorite moments in singing with the group is being able to see the joy and expression on others faces.

    “It makes you just want to jump out your seat,” he said. “It’s a ton of fun.”

    Johnathon Kelso is a photographer based in Atlanta. You can follow him on Instagram.