Sweet Communion: The Johnathon Kelso Alabama Sacred Harp Collection

December 18, 2017 – March 2018
Milo B. Howard Auditorium and First Floor Corridor

This temporary exhibit featured 29 color images depicting Sacred Harp singing in Alabama. The photographs were taken by Atlanta-based professional photographer Johnathon Kelso between 2010 and 2015.

Sacred Harp singing is among Alabama’s most distinctive musical traditions. Also called shape-note singing or fasola, the style dates back to an eighteenth-century New England simplification of the standard eight-note vocal system. Shape-note singing employs only four syllables, fa, so, la, and mi, which correspond with shapes in written music, collected in hymn books. Singers position themselves in a hollow square, facing inward, divided by the four voice parts: tenor (melody), treble, alto, and bass. A rotating leader directs songs with the rhythmic, vertical strokes of his or her arm.

Shape-note singing reached the Deep South in the mid-nineteenth century. An 1844 songbook titled The Sacred Harp lent its name to the singing style as it became increasingly popular among both white and black congregants.

In 2010, Johnathon Kelso began documenting the people, events, and customs of the Sacred Harp tradition in Alabama and Georgia. “From the moment I stepped foot in the hollow square at my first Sacred Harp singing, I knew I wanted to photograph what I was seeing,” Kelso said. “As a photographer, I felt a strong sense of duty to share its rich cultural and spiritual beauty.” For more information about Johnathon Kelso and his work, visit his website at www.johnathonkelso.com. Other images from Kelso’s Alabama Sacred Harp series are also available in the Archives’ digital collections.

Press Release