By Shelley Koppel
One weekend, Matt Hinton heard about "shaped note" singing being held in a Baptist church in north Georgia.
"I heard about the singing coming up and I'm not sure why I decided to go," he said. "I was interested in folk music and something made it sound like I might like it. When I approached the church, it was obvious immediately that it was a great thing. I was 16."
What Mr. Hinton had heard was Sacred Harp singing, some of the earliest music in America. Based on a hymnal called "The Sacred Harp," first published in 1844, the music is sung using the shaped notes fa, sol, la and mi. His interest caught, he attended weekly all-day singings in Georgia and Alabama.
Mr. Hinton and his future wife, Erica, both attended Georgia State.
"She was taking a film class on the history of documentary film," Mr. Hinton said. "They had the option of writing an essay or making a 10-minute film. I recommended Sacred Harp singing. We eventually ended going to singings and bringing a camera."
Long after graduation, over a seven-year time period, the Hintons made a documentary about the music form and the people who sing it. Called "Awake, My Soul," it will be presented on April 13 at Holy Trinity Academy in Melbourne, with a singing event on April 14. Mr. Hinton spoke from his home in Atlanta about the music that has played such an important part in his life.
"It's the first distinctly American music form," he said. "It's derived from traditions among people from England. As early as the mid-1700s, singing in church was considered lacking because no one knew how to read music. There were only a handful of songs. Itinerant singing masters would travel around, teaching singing to congregations."
Mr. Hinton, who taught religion and theology for many years at Spelman and Morehouse Colleges in Atlanta, knows this subject well.
"The churches in early colonial America were all Protestant," he said.
"The goal was to have the congregation sing and not have a choir sing on their behalf. The priority was to teach people to sing and harmonize. They sang a cappella. That's the heritage Sacred Harp singers have inherited."
The "Sacred Harp" hymnal is the one that is most commonly used in the singing and is the main one that has survived.
"There is a theological assumption that each of us is born with an instrument - our voices - and it was thought of that as sacred music," Mr. Hinton said.
Mr. Hinton taught until two years ago, when he changed careers.
"Perplexingly, I opened a burrito shop," he said. "Now I have two."
Still, when a community learns of the documentary, which aired at one time on PBS, he is often invited to a screening and a singing. It is not referred to as a performance or concert, he said.
"A good chunk of the singers will have their backs to the audience," he said. "We sit in a square with each of the four sections facing each other. The tenors, male and female, face front. On the right side, is the treble section, also male and female.
"Facing the tenors are the altos, all female, and on the left side are the bass, all male. A different person has the opportunity to lead a song from the book with each new song. It cannot have already been sung."
Traditionally, a singing begins at 9 a.m., with a break for a potluck dinner at noon. Then it's back to singing until 3-4 p.m.
"Part of my philosophy is that it's good when the food makes sense with the music," Mr. Hinton said. "If we're in Georgia, It's fried chicken and creamed corn."
Whatever the food, there is no question how Mr. Hinton feels about the music.
"All you've got to do is listen to it," he said. "When you're present at a singing, there's nothing like it in the world."
The documentary, "Awake, My Soul," will be presented April 13 at noon at Holy Trinity Academy, 5625 Holy Trinity Drive, Melbourne.
On April 13 at 6 p.m., there will be an introduction to shape note singing at another Holy Trinity campus, located at 50 W. Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. The singing event will take place April 14 at 9:30 a.m. at the latter campus.
All of the events are free and open to the public. For more information, call (321) 723-8323, Ext. 330.
For more information about shape note singing, visit the website www.fasola.org.
For more information about the documentary "Awake, My Soul," visit the website www.awakemysoul.com.