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Cold Mountain


The first film to feature singing from the Sacred Harp tradition

See also the Video clips here.


Film Review – Cold Mountain

by Mick Verrier

Cold Mountain has been awaited with eager anticipation in shape-note singing circles, ever since the news broke that Tim Eriksen was involved in the music and had managed to bring Sacred Harp singing into the film. There seemed to be a widespread expectation that Cold Mountain would do for Sacred Harp what O Brother, Where Art Thou? had done for bluegrass. The film went on general release in the US a few weeks ago and, thus far, the reaction of the US Sacred Harp community is, perhaps, best summed up as appreciative but disappointed.

Cold Mountain opened here in the UK at Christmas and I saw it in Birmingham on December 27th, with Isabelle Walker. We tried to prepare ourselves for disappointment (musically at least) by telling ourselves that we were going to see a film, not to listen to music; in the event, we found ourselves far from disappointed. The film held our attention from beginning to end (two-and-a-half hours), and the fact that we recognised songs and tunes in the score simply added to our enjoyment.

Set against the background of the American Civil War, Cold Mountain is based upon a novel of the same name, and manages to include most of the strands and events from the book, though not in quite the same order. Of course, comparing a film to its stimulus is rarely productive, as the constraints are totally different, but on the whole this film does justice to its book: it skilfully weaves together two (or three or four, depending on your point of view) storylines without confusion.

As is often the case with a film over two hours long, there is a danger that the audience might lose patience with the principal leads, Ada (Nicole Kidman) and Inman (Jude Law), but a new character, Ruby (Renee Zellweger), is introduced just in the nick of time, to give Ada, and the film, a well needed shot in the arm. Music is a constant theme throughout the film, from Ada’s piano to the proto-old-time music supplied by Ruby’s father (voiced by Tim Eriksen) and his companions, and, of course, the Sacred Harp contributions.

Many from the US shape note community who have commented on the film have raised concerns about the level of violence and a certain amount of “adult” content, but I have to say that I was not worried on either score. The film opens with a very down to earth and gritty battle sequence, heavy with realistic violence but not in the Saving Private Ryan league, but for shape note singers the main point of interest is the musical underscoring: “Idumea”. Unfortunately, the battle is very loud, and the song is very low in the mix, so one cannot really hear the words, which is a shame. Some orchestral accompaniment has been added which, perhaps strangely, does not detract in any way from the song (and which does not feature on the soundtrack CD). As to the adult content, it is mostly very brief and not particularly offensive, or at least it wasn’t when we saw it, which may mean that the BBFC has insisted upon some editing.

After its loud and violent beginning, the film settles down to become a touching story which will keep you thoroughly gripped until the final scenes of tragedy and hope, but I wouldn’t want to give the game away... suffice it to say that it is a film worth seeing, music or no music.

However, for most of you reading this review, it will be the music that you want to hear about, and the question of whether or not the film will lead to an upsurge in interest in shape note singing: the answer to that question, put bluntly, is that it will not. “Idumea” will have real meaning only for the small minority of viewers who actually know the song.

“I’m Going Home” appears in the context of a shape note singing, but that context is not explained anywhere in the film and therefore it will only be apparent to those who are already familiar with the concept.

 “Wayfaring Stranger” is sung as a folk song, with accompaniment, and is very effective in that form, but has no outward connection to the shape note tradition at all in that context. The simple truth, therefore, is that nothing in the film is likely to spark much interest in what we, the shape note community, do. There is talk of documentary material being included on the DVD release, and certainly there is a possibility that someone buying the soundtrack CD (where the Sacred Harp items are credited to “Sacred Harp Singers at Liberty Church”) might realise that there is something interesting going on, but the film itself will not have that effect.

Go and see it anyway!

Mick Verrier
January 2002

Shines Light on 'Sacred Harp' Music


Wed Feb 11, 5:07 PM ET

By TARA BURGHART, Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO - Surrounded by other singers arranged in a square, Judy Hauff rocks her feet heel to toe, rhythmically slashes the air with her arm and sings "Fa la sol la sol."

AP Photo


This is "shape note" music, an a cappella, traditional form of folk hymn singing that dates to Colonial times. Also known as Sacred Harp music, it's enjoying a revival after being featured in the film "Cold Mountain" and on its soundtrack.

"It's America's best kept musical secret," said Hauff at a recent workshop at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

In the Civil War-era movie, which is nominated for seven Academy Awards (news - web sites), the shape note song "Idumea" is played over a battle scene. Another scene, in a church, features the characters singing "I'm Going Home" from their Sacred Harp hymnals when they are interrupted with news that the war has begun.

Sacred Harp uses printed shapes to help untrained singers read the music. A triangle represents fa, a circle for sol, a square for la and a diamond for mi. There is no musical accompaniment — "harp" refers to the most-used tune book, "The Sacred Harp," first published in 1844.

Also unique is the way singers are organized — in an open square, with tenors, bass, alto and treble voices each taking a side. Singers take turns leading the group and beat their hands to keep time.

The result is a loud, clear, almost astringent sound that some describe as ancient, others like a human bagpipe or organ. Singers usually perform a song using its notes before singing the lyrics. And everyone is expected to participate — there is no division between a choir and audience.

"It's not for listening," said Tim Eriksen, who sings and appears in "Cold Mountain" and who led the workshop in which Hauff participated. "You can listen to it ... But the beauty of this really comes in the singing."

Some Sacred Harp enthusiasts hope "Cold Mountain" will do for shape note singing what the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack did for bluegrass. Both soundtracks were produced by T Bone Burnett.

Eriksen's workshop was so popular that organizers rearranged the room and expanded the class size from 35 to 80. In other cities, long-established Sacred Harp groups are attracting new people. And while only two Sacred Harp songs appear on the "Cold Mountain" soundtrack, there is talk of releasing an entire CD filled with shape note music from the "Cold Mountain" sessions.

The "Cold Mountain" shape note music for the soundtrack and movie was recorded at Liberty Baptist Church on Alabama's Sand Mountain, although bits of the stars' singing voices were later blended in.

Eriksen was hired to teach the actors how to sing shape note music so that they would look realistic on film. His singing voice was also dubbed in for that of a singing fiddler, and he appears on the soundtrack and in the church scene leading the song.

A world music expert and former punk rocker from Massachusetts who discovered shape note singing in his teens, Eriksen, 37, symbolizes the variety of people the music attracts. And while the hymns are Christian in nature, the performances are not outwardly religious.

Sacred Harp music was replaced in many parts of the country in the second half of the 19th century by religious hymns. But it found a permanent home in rural areas of the South, where "singing conventions" cropped up and people would travel for miles to sing for hours, or days, at a time.

About 20 years ago, Sacred Harp attracted new enthusiasts, many of them curious participants on college campuses and in churches in New England and the Midwest.

In Chicago, Hauff, 60, and Ted Johnson, 75, were part of a group of about a dozen folk-music fans who discovered Sacred Harp music in the early 1980s. Intrigued, they traveled to the South to learn from people who had grown up singing the music.

"It just blew us away," Johnson remembered.

Now there are Sacred Harp groups across the nation and many enthusiasts fly cross-country on weekends to join other groups. Richard DeLong, who performed in the Liberty Baptist Church recordings, hopes the new exposure will help keep Sacred Harp music alive.

"We're delighted to welcome new people all the time," said DeLong, who was taken to his first shape note singing as a baby by his grandmother in rural Georgia. "It won't take them very long — if they keep coming, they'll get hooked, just like the rest of us, and be part of the extended musical family."


Judy Hauff, left, of Chicago, and Henry Schuman, of Ann Arbor, Mich., sing during a class on Sacred Harp music at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Saturday, Jan. 10, 2004, in Chicago. Sacred Harp music is a traditional American form of singing folk-hymns that dates back to the early 1800s. (AP Photo/Brian Kersey)


Music from the 'The Sacred Harp' contains notes of different shapes like squares and triangles setting it apart from traditional music as shown in this illustration from the Sacred Harp book at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Saturday, Jan. 10, 2004, in Chicago. The music was developed in the early 1800s, as a way to help untrained singers read the music. (AP Photo/Brian Kersey)


'Cold Mountain' shows off sacred singing

Shape-note genre could get a boost from hit film

By Nancy Henderson Wurst
Special to the Chicago Tribune

January 4th 2004

In a scene from "Cold Mountain," Ada and Inman exchange glances from hard wooden pews as they sing from their "Sacred Harp" hymnals. The congregation keeps time to the jubilant a cappella tune, rigid hands slicing the air, strong voices lifted in praise. When news of war interrupts the service, the male parishioners eagerly file out of the church and the women continue to sing: "I'm glad that I am born to die / From grief and woe my soul shall fly / And I don't care to stay here long!"

Despite its heaven-bound theme, "I'm Going Home" is a ray of light in a brutal film of survival, personal growth and enduring love. "It's really a joyful song, and Anthony [Minghella, who directed the Miramax film] wanted some brightness in there," says Tim Eriksen, a Minneapolis-based musician who taught Nicole Kidman (Ada) and Jude Law (Inman) how to sing Sacred Harp music. "There's considerable darkness in the film. But in the church scene, there's white light streaming in, and everybody's just really enjoying themselves singing."

Such is the nature of shape-note singing, a style born in Colonial New England as a way for off-key congregations to learn the hymns. By 1850, hundreds of songbooks relied on four "shape-notes" (triangles, circles, squares and diamonds) instead of fa, sol, la and mi. Over the years, however, the method all but disappeared except in the rural South, and most of the tomes faded into obscurity. "Sacred Harp," which contains more than 500 three- and four-part fugues, hymns and marches, survived.

Shape-note revival

During the past two decades, a shape-note revival has been infiltrating churches, college campuses and meeting houses in cities across the U.S., including Chicago. And with the release of "Cold Mountain," the revival is likely to receive renewed attention.

During a singing, altos, sopranos, basses and tenors sit facing each other in a "hollow square" and take turns leading the group in a favorite Sacred Harp song. On Jan. 11 the Chicago Sacred Harp Singers will celebrate their 20th anniversary at an all-day singing at the Irish American Heritage Center. The clan came together by accident, after folk-music enthusiasts stumbled across a copy of the old songbook.

"Eventually they figured out that there were actually people down South who were singing this stuff, and it was called Sacred Harp," says Cathryn Baker, a librarian, University of Chicago music alumna, and spokeswoman for the city's Sacred Harp movement. "So they went South and realized that everything they had been doing was wrong. And they came up here and changed their ways."

The practice gradually garnered a following. Today the mailing list for the University of Chicago Shape-Note Singing Association (a loose network of "officers" who organize events) includes 400 Sacred Harp fans. Weekly singings are held at participants' homes in Hyde Park. Monthly "all-Chicago" events take place on the North side of town, most often at St. Paul's Community Church in Wicker Park.

Despite its Christian-based lyrics, the genre draws singers from all types of professions and backgrounds: social workers, teachers, chefs, retail executives, newspaper reporters. "There are even practicing Jews who are part of Sacred Harp," says Baker, who joined the Hyde Park singings about seven years ago. "There are Buddhists. There are atheists. There are people like me; I'm a Quaker. There are Baptists. And we all have different political persuasions."

T Bone Burnett, the Grammy-winning music director who produced the soundtracks for "Cold Mountain" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" admits he is "very new" to the genre, although he was aware of it while growing up in North Carolina and Texas. The first time he heard shape-note music, he says, "it sounded like something from another planet or something, so beautiful and so strange."

While filming "Cold Mountain," Burnett and Minghella recorded nearly 40 Sacred Harp tunes at a small church in Henagar, Ala. (Eriksen, a punk rocker, world-music expert and Sacred Harp tenor, talked the directors into documenting a real singing instead of trying to re-create one in the studio.)

"I don't think we ever had an idea of the size of the role it was going to play," Burnett says. "We just recorded some to have as a resource." Burnett was so pleased with the outcome that he plans to release a compilation of the Alabama songs this spring. What's more, Minghella was so smitten with the music that two of the songs, "I'm Going Home" and "Idumea" (the score for the horrific battle scene at Petersburg, Va.), became pivotal parts of the movie.

Taught technique to actors

Eriksen was hired as the singing voice of the "Cold Mountain" fiddler Stobrod Thewes, played by Brendan Gleeson, but was subsequently cast as the choirmaster in the church scene and commissioned to teach the actors and extras how to sing via shape-notes. Eriksen also sang or arranged seven soundtrack cuts, including a solo rendition of "Idumea." His infant son, Luka, even shows up in a scene with Renee Zellweger's plucky character, Ruby.

On Saturday, Eriksen will conduct a Sacred Harp workshop at the Old Town School of Folk Music and give a concert featuring selections from "Cold Mountain," solo arrangements of Sacred Harp songs, and traditional ballads on banjo, fiddle and guitar. Despite his eclectic musical background -- he also performs popular Bosnian tunes with his wife, Mirjana -- his favorite remains Sacred Harp.

"I love performing, but I really love singing with people," he says. "If I had to choose, I would certainly choose to sing with people rather than at them. It's much more fun."

Sacred Harp supporters are often wooed by the intense, soulful harmonizing, which seems to fill every inch of the room. The first time she heard the music, says Baker, "I felt like I wasn't even in my skin anymore. It was like I was part of everybody there, and they were all part of me, and we were all just one, big beautiful sound."

Baker and other shape-note aficionados are pleased that the genre is gaining exposure via "Cold Mountain." But they're also concerned that a sudden surge in popularity might taint the tradition and the spiritual "community" of Sacred Harp singing.

"Like everybody else, I'm nervous," Baker admits. "I'm worried that some of the glue that holds us together might get thinned out, because there will be a number of people coming in just out of curiosity and not because it means anything to them." On the other hand, she says, "they will probably sift themselves out because you can't just dip your toe in the water of Sacred Harp and say, `Ooh, that's really nice' and expect it to really keep going with any kind of fervor. You have to immerse yourself in it."

So is Sacred Harp destined to get the same boost from "Cold Mountain" as old-time country music did from "O Brother"? Probably not, Burnett says.

"I don't think it's a good idea to compare what might happen to shape-note music to what happened in `O Brother, Where Art Thou?'" he says. "That album started out with a chain-gang song recorded as Southern heritage music in 1950 or something like that. And you know, there wasn't a big run on chain-gang music [after the movie].

"I don't think there'll be a big shape-note phenomenon, with groups of people getting together on street corners. But it's such a beautiful part of our culture that anything we can do to keep it healthy is a good thing to do."

Copyright © 2004, The Chicago Tribune

Images from the film



Fearing for the safety of his beloved Ada, the wounded Confederate soldier Inman makes his way across the war-ravaged South, back to her farm on Cold Mountain. He faces trials and tribulations as he encounters slaves and bounty hunters, soldiers and witches, unexpected friends and dangerous enemies at every turn. Ada's road is no easier as she relies on wits and newfound bravery to protect her father's farm from attack, with the help of an intrepid drifter named Ruby.

As they come ever closer, Inman and Ada weave a story about the longing for home after being in the wilderness, the longing for peace after being at war, and the longing for love and union in the midst of chaos.

Based on one of the most acclaimed novels in recent memory, "Cold Mountain" sets off on a true American odyssey through a time that saw some of the greatest ferocity -- and heroism -- the nation has ever known.


THE TIMES - January 11 2004

Pop: New Releases: Various Artists: Cold Mountain OST

Cold Mountain OST
Columbia 5151192

ONCE part of the mighty phalanx of guitarists that backed Bob Dylan on his revered Rolling Thunder tour, T Bone Burnett is best known now for masterminding the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Burnett has found his niche, following up O Brother with the equally wonderful Cajun-tinged soundtrack to Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and now a mix of blues, folk and gospel for the civil-war movie Cold Mountain. The bait for music fans here is the presence of Jack White on four songs, and he acquits himself well, but, though White may lure you in, the real find here is the Sacred Harp Singers — an untrained gospel choir whose I’m Going Home will raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Two stars

THE OBSERVER - January 11 2004

Pop CD of the Week:  Roots manoeuvres: Various: Cold Mountain OST

Cold Mountain OST

....... Cold Mountain's soundtrack boasts a brace of eerie revamped traditionals and a few uneasy new compositions.  Its chief pleasures lie in the presence of The White Stripes' Jack White, no stranger to role-playing, or convincing reanimations of old musics.  He slips with ease into the skin of Georgia, a Civil War soldier and banjo-strummer, and his unshowy and fragile renditions of classics like 'Wayfarin' Stranger' feel utterly convincing.  Chills, too come from Cassie Franklin's performance of the bleak 'Lady Margret', and the Sacred Harp Singers' vaulting a cappellas.  But bluegrass queen Alison Krauss disappoints, coming over too breathy and girly for the prevailing atmosphere of hardship. Sting's new song for her misfires badly, too.  With one exception - Jack White's excellent 'Never Far Away', which tackles folk via the countryfied meditations of Led Zeppelin - it is, ironically, the unvarnished, ancient stuff that rings the truest here.


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