The little Baptist congregation in the place I grew up had a loud, out-of-tune upright piano and someone to play it most of the time. Some congregations were not so blessed, and sang their hymns a cappella, whether it was a part of their doctrine or not.
Hymnals were printed with shaped notes to indicate the different voice parts. The most popular hymnal was titled Sacred Harp, and thus it became known as sacred harp singing (sacred harp referred to the human voice as a musical instrument). Some summers, there would be a singing school at the church where children were taught the parts and how to make hand movements to accompany the music.
Sadly, I never attended any of the singing schools, and the first fa so la I learned was in high school chorus. This was in the sixties when The Sound of Music was a popular movie, and one of the songs our choral director selected was Do-Re-Mi. I still haven't learned to move my hands correctly to the music.
Sacred harp music is alive and well in Alabama. There is a singing convention every year, and various meetings throughout the state where this music can be heard and the audience can participate. There are some good links to sacred harp music at AlabamaFolklife.org.
Last Saturday, as Hub and I helped celebrate Christmas Past at Sugarlands Visitor Center, we attended a program of sacred harp singing. Hymnals were passed out, and a song leader led us through several hymns. The theater was almost full with people from all over the country, and we didn't personally know a single person there. Some of us, perhaps most of us, were not trained singers, but the old songs sounded beautiful as we joined together in singing. We sang some standards like Amazing Grace and Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, Silent Night, and some other Christmas songs were included.
There is something so right and special about being able to share a hymnal with a total stranger and blend your voices in praise and thanksgiving. I felt like I had been to a revival meeting when it was over.