Give Me That Old-Time Singing

Once America's most popular religious music, Sacred Harp is being revived by urban hipsters

Mark Peterson / Redux for TIME

Groups like the Lower East Side Sacred Harp Sing meet regularly at places like Googie's Lounge, above the Living Room in lower Manhattan

One Saturday in January, a well-dressed man strolling Manhattan's recently gentrified Lower East Side unexpectedly found his way blocked by 35 people singing on the sidewalk. The lyrics were somber--"Then shall the dust return ... to God who gave it"--but the delivery was joyful. Asked what he thought was going on, he ventured, "I dunno. A funeral?"

Actually, it was a resurrection. The singers--housewives, ex-punkers, Evangelicals, atheists, Jews and Buddhists waiting for their usual venue above a local bar to open--were devotees of a Christian four-part choral style called Sacred Harp (the name refers to the human voice and a songbook...

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