LOGAN SQUARE — On a recent Tuesday evening, about 20 people sit in a circle in the Comfort Station, all with large red books in hand.
As more people trickle into the tiny arts space, group leader Matthew Siefert has the group sing out of the large red book — fa, sol, la, mi. Each note corresponds with a different shape (triangle, circle, square and diamond). Don’t fret if you mess up, he assures them.
Then it’s time for each person to choose a song out of the book for the group to sing. The first person chooses and, all at once, the group belts out a loud, brash and almost haunting hymn that makes passersby crane their necks in the window to find out what’s going on.
This scene plays out the second Tuesday of every month at the Comfort Station at 2579 N. Milwaukee Ave.
The arts space is home to Logan Square’s Sacred Harp singing group, which has attracted people of all ages and backgrounds since its founding about five years ago.
Singing For Singing’s Sake
Sacred Harp music, or shape-note singing, is a style of traditional choral music that started in early 1800s-era colonial New England but ended up taking root in the rural South.
There’s no harp involved. The tradition is named after an old song book that uses shapes to help people read music and is still very much alive today in towns and cities across the United States and in other countries like England and Canada.
Chicago has its own Sacred Harp music scene with regular singings in Hyde Park, Uptown and Logan Square. Hyde Park’s scene is the largest and most active, but Logan Square’s might be the most diverse.
June Murphy, 26, has become a regular at the Logan Square Sacred Harp singings.
Murphy doesn’t have a musical background. “I did the CPS recommended required class,” she said. Murphy got into Sacred Harp music after taking a gospel music class at Tulane University in New Orleans. She’s been hooked ever since.
“It’s very low stakes. The only people listening are passersby,” Murphy said at a recent singing. “If you listen to recordings, there’s always that one person who is way out in left field and it’s like, they’re right. They get to sing really however they want to.”
With Sacred Harp, there are no practices and no performances; it’s about “singing for singing’s sake.”
Sacred Harp is for untrained musicians — people like Murphy who don’t know how to read music.
“It’s so accessible,” Murphy said. “Some traditions will read out the lyrics beforehand so if you’re illiterate you’ll still get it. … There’s really nothing to it.”
The singings are also a “wonderful social outlet,” noted Logan Square group member John Ceton. Potluck dinners are not uncommon.
Murphy brought her sister to the most recent Logan Square singing and is encouraging her to join a Sacred Harp group where she lives.
“I was like, ‘Girl, just go to Sacred Harp. They’ll take care of you.’ They truly are some of the nicest people,” Murphy said.
Murphy was one of several 20- and 30-something singers at the recent Tuesday night singing. Siefert, the group leader, is 35 years old.
The young singers sing alongside people like Ceton, 75, who has been singing Sacred Harp since 1985, and 72-year-old Bucktown resident Ted Mercer, who helped build Chicago’s Sacred Harp music scene. One of Mercer’s songs was published in the sacred large red book.
“I find it really exhilarating,” Mercer said of Sacred Harp music. “The harmony is very refreshing. Generally not sweet, a little acid in there. There are a lot of songs in the minor key. It really just suits me.”
Mercer said the Logan Square group, unlike other groups in the city, attracts a lot of young people.
“I might be the oldest one here,” he said with a laugh.
Seifert, who took over the group in summer 2018, said the group is growing in large part thanks to young newcomers like Murphy.
“I love the fact that we get a good mix of brand new singers, of which I was one not long ago, and people who have been singing the tradition since they started in Chicago,” Siefert said.
‘There’s All Kinds Of People’
The first iteration of the Logan Square group lasted about two years, from 2014 to 2016. Siefert and his friend Kenan Serenbetz rebooted the group in summer 2018. When Serenbetz moved to Minneapolis, Siefert became the group leader.
Siefert used to listen to hymns in church in rural Illinois, where he grew up. But he didn’t fall in love with Sacred Harp music until 2006, when he bought a record called “I Belong To This Band.” Growing up, Siefert was into music — he taught himself to play the bass and the guitar — but he was never a strong sight reader.
Like the others, Siefert was drawn to Sacred Harp’s accessibility. But he was also drawn to the “rich poetry” of the lyrics and the loud sound.
“I quite like music to jolt me. If you’re listening to high art, beautiful orchestral stuff, and you see them perform, it’s a meal. It’s a banquet. It’s a feast. I feel like Sacred Harp you get that in short doses,” Siefert said.
In the large red books (there are several) you’ll find songs that range from very religious to nondenominational. It’s like the group itself: Some singers are religious and others aren’t.
“There’s atheists, there’s Jews, there’s Quakers. There’s all kinds of people,” said Logan Square group member Eileen Ferguson.
Murphy, the relative newcomer, isn’t religious.
Standing outside of the Comfort Station, Murphy said she has “such admiration” for people like Mercer and Ceton who helped build the Chicago scene.
Joining the group was “daunting at first,” Murphy said, but she found comfort in the sacred songs and the people who love them.
“You know who to sit next to eventually. I learned how to sing one note every six months. Now I’m at all four of them all together,” she said.
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