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Sacred Harp: One of America's Oldest and Purest Musical Traditions

Nancy Steinbach and Dana Demange


HOST: Welcome to AMERICAN MOSAIC, in VOA Special English.

I'm Doug Johnson. On our show this week:

We hear some music known as Sacred Harp…

Answer a question about daylight saving time.

And report about the upcoming holiday of Halloween.


Monday, October thirty-first, is Halloween in the United States. On that night, many people will dress in clothes to make them look like frightening creatures like monsters or ghosts. Faith Lapidus tells us more.

FAITH LAPIDUS: The traditions of Halloween grew out of Celtic beliefs in ancient Britain. The Celts thought spirits of the dead would return to their homes on October thirty-first, the day of the autumn feast. The Celts built huge fires to frighten away evil spirits released with the dead on that night.

People from Scotland and Ireland brought these ideas with them to America. Some people still believed that spirits played tricks on people on the last night of October.

History experts say many of the Halloween traditions today developed from those of ancient times. For example, they say that burning a candle inside a hollow pumpkin recalls the fires set many years ago in Britain. And they say that wearing a mask to hide a person’s face is similar to the way ancient villagers covered their faces to force evil spirits away.

On Halloween night, American children dress in special clothing and go from house to house shouting “trick or treat!” If the people in the houses do not give them candy, the children might play a trick on them. Americans spend a great deal of money buying Halloween costumes to wear. They also buy pumpkins and frightening objects to place outside their homes.

Adults enjoy Halloween, too. Many go to parties dressed as monsters or famous people. We know of two people who got married on Halloween and had their wedding guests dress in such costumes.

The National Retail Federation did a study on what people will wear on Halloween. The group released a list of the most popular Halloween costumes this year. It says the most popular choices for children are princess, witch, monster and characters from popular movies. And it says adults want to dress as a witch, vampire, monster or famous actor.

Daylight Saving Time

HOST: Our VOA listener question this week comes from France. Sylvain Restelli asks about the system of time in the United States.

Standard time is a worldwide system of time areas. It is based on longitude. Longitude is the distance on the Earth that measures east or west of the first longitude line at Greenwich, England. Each time area is fifteen degrees longitude wide.

Under standard time, the time kept in each area is that of its central longitude line. These lines are fifteen degrees, thirty degrees and so on east or west of the first line in England. The difference in time between each nearby area is exactly one hour.

The continental United States is divided into four time areas. The most eastern area uses eastern time. The next time area to the west is central time. The next area is mountain time and the farthest west is pacific time. For example, when it is ten o’clock in New York City, it is nine o’clock in Chicago, Illinois. It is eight o’clock in Denver, Colorado and seven o’clock in San Francisco, California.

In the summertime, most Americans move their clocks ahead one hour for daylight saving time. But some states do not. They are Hawaii, Arizona and parts of Indiana. The use of daylight saving time saves energy by providing an additional hour of daylight in the early evening.

Many countries first used daylight saving time during wartime. After World War Two, American states established some kind of daylight saving time. But this was confusing. So, in nineteen sixty-six, Congress established it for the nation. It began the last Sunday in April and ended the last Sunday in October. Congress extended the time period in the nineteen seventies when a reduction in Arab oil exports caused a fuel shortage.

In nineteen eighty-six, legislation changed the start of daylight saving time from the last Sunday in April to the first Sunday in April. Earlier this year, Congress again passed a law extending daylight saving time. Starting in two thousand seven, daylight saving time will begin the second Sunday in March and end the first Sunday in November.

Until then, daylight saving time begins the first Sunday in April and ends the last Sunday in October. That is why most Americans will set their clocks back one hour this Saturday night.

Sacred Harp

Sacred Harp singing is one of the oldest and purest musical traditions in America. Yet, it has nothing to do with the musical instrument called the harp. These performers use only their voices to sing both religious and non-religious traditional songs Pat Bodnar tells us more.

PAT BODNAR: Sacred Harp singing has existed in America since the eighteenth century. It started when singing teachers traveled around the country to improve the quality of church music.

Here is an example. An African-American group, called the Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers, performs a song written in the late seventeen hundreds. It is called “Coronation.”


The term “Sacred Harp ” refers to a book published in the eighteen forties. It contains more than five hundred songs that are important to the history of Sacred Harp singing. The book is still being published today.

This song was written in eighteen-oh-three. It is based on a Christian Bible story in the Book of Luke. The Alabama Sacred Harp Convention performs the song called “Sherburne.”


Sacred Harp singers get together at day-long events called “sings”. Groups of men, women and children come together to celebrate in song. The people arrange their chairs in a square and face one another. Then they divide into four groups based on their singing voice. Each group makes up one side of the square. Every person takes a turn choosing a song and leading the group.

We leave you now with a song performed by a professional group of singers called the Word of Mouth Chorus. This song was written in nineteen fifty. “Peace and Joy” is a more modern example of the Sacred Harp tradition.


HOST: I'm Doug Johnson. I hope you enjoyed our program.

This show was written by Nancy Steinbach and Dana Demange who was also our producer.

Send your questions about American life to Please include your full name and mailing address. Or write to American Mosaic, VOA Special English, Washington, D.C., two-zero-two-three-seven, U.S.A.

Join us again next week for AMERICAN MOSAIC, VOA’s radio magazine in Special English.