Sacred Harp by Cantus

Caught on WQXR (classical music radio in NYC) a few days ago, just as I was waking up: what was clearly the shapenote song A Thankful Heart (a favorite of mine), in the Sacred Harp (475) harmonization, but sung by an all-male chorus in a professional-chorus style. Yes, the announcer verified, that was John Hocutt’s shapenote song, as performed by Cantus on their latest album (A Harvest Home, 2014).

It’s a Thanksgiving album, featuring songs of thanks and songs about food (including “Food, Glorious Food” from Oliver!). A Thankful Heart is, as you can tell from the title, a song of thanks. The album has another Sacred Harp song on it, Holy Manna (59), which is, in a way, a song about food; it has a totally different feel to it from A Thankful Heart.

About Cantus, from Wikipedia:

Cantus is a full-time, professional vocal chamber ensemble [based in Minneapolis], made up of nine men singing in a TTBB (tenor, tenor, baritone, bass), changed male voice arrangement. The artists are self-led, with programming and musical direction coming from within the group itself. The ensemble is known for innovative concert programming, often tying together works of numerous genres to explore a selected theme, including classical music, orchestral-vocal repertoire, folk music, art song, popular songs, spirituals, and newly commissioned works.

… The group was established by St. Olaf College students Brian Arreola, Albert Jordan, Erick Lichte, and Kjell Stenberg (three of whom were cellists), who recruited fellow students to sing with them in 1995.

Now, about the shapenote songs on A Harvest Home.

A Thankful Heart is a “new song”, with music by John T. Hocutt in 1989 (using 1760 words by Anne Steele), appearing for the first time in the 1991 revision of the Denson Sacred Harp. (The tradition is constantly renewed by new songs, usually employing traditional texts.)


Holy Manna, on the other hand, is an old song. From Wikipedia:

Holy Manna is the hymn tune originally written for “Brethren, We Have Met Together”, which is one of the oldest published American folk hymns. Holy Manna is a pentatonic melody in Ionian mode. It was originally published by William Moore in Columbian Harmony, a four-note shape-note tunebook, in 1829, and is attributed to him.

It is … used as a common tune for other songs, especially “God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens”, “All Who Hunger, Gather Gladly”, and “I will Arise and Go to Jesus”.

Not only pentatonic, but also a “shouting song”, often sung with wild enthusiasm (certainly by me).


There are wonderful YouTube videos of both songs from Sacred Harp singings around the U.S. (and abroad).


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