Local Couple Recognized as Sacred Harp Masters

A group of local Sacred Harp shape note singers traveled to Charlottesville recently as a tribute to celebrating life through song.

Clarke County residents John del Re and Kelly Macklin of Boyce, Virginia were inducted as Masters in the Virginia Folklife Program’s to the Apprentice program. The couple will return next year to showcase the work that they have done with their apprentices.

Sacred Harp singers tune up at Josephine School Museum - Photo Edward Leonard

The Virginia Folklife Program (VFP), a public program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, is dedicated to the documentation, presentation, and support of Virginia’s rich cultural heritage.  Whether sung or told, hand-crafted or performed, Virginia’s rich Folklife refers to those “arts of everyday life” that reflect a sense of traditional knowledge and connection to community.

Shape note singing is a folk art dating to post-Revolutionary War days, when Americans set folk tunes to religious texts using patented shaped notes to  facilitate sight-reading. Meant to encourage good congregational singing, the style was taught by singing masters throughout New England.

By the early 1800s, shape note singing had spread from New England to the mid-Atlantic region and the Shenandoah Valley, and settled into the Southern uplands about 1840, where it has survived to this day in the form of traditional gatherings where participants sing all day.

The style is characterized by several things: four part,  a cappella  singing with no musical instruments; use of an oblong tune book in shape notation; rotating leadership of songs by anyone in the group confident to lead taking a turn; singing the “solmization” through before singing the words; sitting in a hollow square with the singers facing the center; and day-long or shorter gatherings with a shared potluck meal.

John del Re and Kelly Macklin began singing with a group in the Washington D.C. area, holding their first annual two-day convention twenty-two years ago. Since 1990, they have been meeting monthly with fifty singers in Clarke County, and host an annual all-day sing that draws hundreds of people. Apprentices John Alexander and Diane Ober have been leading the Rivanna River Sacred Harp Singers, and consider del Re and Macklin to be among the finest singers in the area.


  1. In 2004, I heard shape note singing at the Easter sunrise service at Old Chapel. At a later date, it was a pleasure to watch Marilyn Estep and Sharon Harrison sing with a group of shape note singers.

  2. For the uninitiated, this is the ninth song from the soundtrack to the movie Cold Mountain, 2003, performed by Sacred Harp Singers At Liberty Church.


  3. This might be a better clip to view if you’ve never heard or heard of shape note singing.

    Awake, My Soul’ is the first feature documentary about the Sacred Harp singers, a ‘Lost Tonal Tribe’ who, in the deep south, continue to sing some of the oldest songs in America. Directed by Matt and Erica Hinton. http://www.awakemysoul.com


  4. For more on the Virginia Folklife Program visit http://www.virginiafolklife.org