Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention

A little before ten this morning, Carol dropped me off at Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Georgia. The church has been engulfed by upscale suburban sprawl — office parks, gated communities, tasteful shopping malls, impeccably maintained four-lane roads — but once you get on the church grounds, you enter into a different cultural landscape. The church, a plain and attractive brick building, is surrounded on two sides by moss-covered gravel parking areas shaded by trees; quite a few cars were already nestled in shady parking spots. Behind the church was a cemetery with quite a few older gravestones, and some gravestones that looked very new.

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Above: Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church, Alpharetta, Ga.

Inside, the church was quite plain, as you’d expect in a Primitive Baptist Church: little ornamentation, plain white walls, simple but attractive pews — and no musical instruments. Fifty or so singers were gathered up at the front of the church. I went to sit in the bass section, and noticed that in the hymnal racks on the backs of the pews were hymnals, Bibles, and fans in case it got too hot. I opened up my copy of The Sacred Harp, and got ready to sing.

The singing, the 146th session of the annual Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention, belonged to this other cultural landscape, removed from the gated communities and office parks. It’s music that’s meant to be performed and shared, not consumed; it’s a democratic musical tradition where everyone sings, and anyone can lead a tune if they want to. The singing rose up into that plain white sun-washed church, loud and triumphant. It had that old-time lonesome sound that lets you know that in spite of all the sorrow and troubles we face, God is in heaven and all is right with the world.

Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention

Above: View from the bass section, 146th session of the Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention

A seven year old girl got up to lead “Africa,” an old Isaac Watts hymn — a hymn seems to me to express a Universalist theology of hope and assurance — set to music by William Billings in the late eighteenth century. Between the words to the hymn and that self-possessed girl leading the other singers so well, I got a little choked up and couldn’t sing for a bit, and maybe there were some tears running down my cheeks.

Lunch was served in the time-honored custom of dinner-on-the-grounds. There was a small kitchen building behind the church. Extending from that was a long table, perhaps fifty feet long, built on concrete blocks. Everyone who had brought food to share laid it out on this long table. Over the table was a roof to keep the sun and rain showers off, and between the posts holding up the roof were boards set at a height where you could put your plate while you stood and ate and talked with everyone around you. The woods stood near at hand, and some people from the church instructed us to through any food that was left on our plates out to the varmints in the woods.

Carol had come to the singing by now, and we got our dinners: ham, pulled pork, collard greens, fried okra, perfectly ripe cantaloupe, broccoli casserole, and some of the best layer cake I’ve ever eaten. We stood and ate and talked. I talked with Henry from Alabama, with whom I talked universalist theology. I talked with Nathan, an art historian who’s moving to North Dakota, who specializes in spiritual painters in the southwestern U.S. in the early 20th century. We talked with Shawn and Natalie, who live in Melbourne, Australia, and who sing Sacred harp there. I can’t remember who all we talked with.

The singing was just as good in the afternoon session, in not a little better. During the afternoon break, I got involved in a brief and somewhat technical discussion with a couple of fourth- or fifth- or maybe sixth-generation Sacred Harp singers on the proper tempo for “David’s Lamentation,” a William Billings composition. The piece has become a standard in the repertoire of college choirs, where it is often sung at a slow tempo, and apparently some people have tried leading it slowly at Sacred Harp singings. But the three of us all agreed it should be led at a fast pace, which is both the traditional way to sing it in the South (and not coincidentally, the way Billings clearly preferred it to be sung).

The singing ended. Jeff offered to give me a ride back to the motel. We pulled out of the parking lot, leaving behind a cultural landscape devoted to shared experience, democratic traditions, and matters of the spirit, and re-entered a cultural landscape dominated by consumption and competition.

 

Crossposted from here.

10th annual Golden Gate All-Day Singing

In brief: 94 tunes, 72 leaders, about 115 registered singers from 8 states and two countries (the United States and the United Kingdom).

But was it a good singing?

The new singing space, Trinity Lutheran Church in Alameda, was wonderful. Now Bay Area Sacred Harp singers can have strong opinions about singing spaces, so there may be negative opinions out there — but I’ll be opinionated, too, and say that negative opinions are wrong. The singing space sounded good: a bright yet warm sound. The grounds of the church are beautiful, so there were lots of nice places to eat dinner outside. The space was big enough to hold all the singers we had today, with room for expansion if we return there next year (last year’s space was just plain overcrowded) — and it was accessible to people with mobility issues. Finally, there was a great kitchen with an industrial quality dishwasher, which made clean-up much easier for those of us on the kitchen committee.

We had a good-sized contingent of singers come down from Washington and Oregon, as well as a good-sized contingent of singers from southern California — visitors are always welcome, but these were especially good voices and especially nice people. We also had lots of fine local singers — regulars from the practice singings in Berkeley, Davis, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz, and lots of other northern California singers.

Carol and I were the kitchen committee, and I’ve decided that this is just about my favorite job at an all-day singing. What’s not to like about being on the kitchen committee? — you get to lay out all this really good food (and scope out what the best dishes are), you get to clean up afterwards, and during peak allergy season I just don’t want to sing for six hours anyway. Miranda, who is 11, joined the kitchen committee to help us set out the food. Linda from Fresno joined Miranda and I after dinner, doing clean-up in the kitchen, and we all had fun. Miranda and I ran the industrial quality dishwasher (with a 90-second cycle!), and we both had a lot of fun, even though we each got a little wet from the high-pressure dish sprayer.

So yes — it was a good singing.

Santa Cruz all-day singing announced for July

The local singing in Santa Cruz has announced that they’re going to host an all-day singing this summer. From a recent email update sent by Ed Rice:

“In other news, we’re having a Santa Cruz all-day singing on July 12 from 10-4 at the Live Oak Grange. More details will emerge as that date gets closer.”

I’ve long thought that Northern California has needed more all-day singings. The next closest all-day singings are in Los Angeles, 8 hours away by car, or Portland, Oregon, which is 10 hours away. There are plenty of us singers who love all-day singings, but who don’t have the time or money to travel much. Plus, more all-day singings means new singers don’t have to wait as long to get the full Sacred Harp experience — which in turn would likely mean that more new folks would stick with Sacred Harp singing. Kudos to the Santa Cruz singers for helping fill this need!

Seattle convention, day 2

What makes for a really good convention? Good singing, good food, and good people — not necessarily in that order. The Seattle convention always seems to have all three of these things, and this year was even better than before.

Good singing: The Pacific Northwest has more than its share of fine singers, and you can count on most of them turning out for the Seattle convention. I feel there is something of a regional style in the Pacific Northwest, which could be characterized as loud but very tuneful, and a strong rhythmic drive without excessive emphasis on the first and third beats. Ornamentation is subtle or non-existent. Tempos vary widely, from fast to stately. I would call the tuning just intonation, with pure octaves and fifths, and sweet-sounding thirds with a distinct difference between major and minor thirds.

The overall impression is of a strongly rhythmic and sweet sound. Given how many Pacific Northwest singers also sing from the Christian Harmony and Cooper book (indeed, the Seattle area has the most important Cooper book singings outside the South), I wonder if singing from those books has some influence on the regional style. Regardless of the technical details, the sound is warm and full and loud, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Good food: Let’s start with at least three different kinds of pulled pork, including alder-smoked pulled pork. Now add a wide variety of casseroles, cooked greens, homemade bread and rolls, and many more dishes that I didn’t get a chance to sample. Finish off with blueberry pie, a dozen varieties of cookies, and really good coffee. Incredible food.

Good people: The Pacific Northwest singers are a really lovely bunch of people who have built up a culture of friendliness and hospitality that is hard to beat. They also seem to be really good at bringing along new singers, and welcoming younger singers. They somehow seem to maintain high musical standards without being judgmental. This kind of openness and hospitality fosters the kind of warm personal relationships that are so important for Sacred Harp singing.

At many Sacred Harp singings, you’ll see the occasional case of ruffled feathers, and one or two hissy fits. Maybe these things happen at the Seattle convention, but if so they’re not noticeable. The only thing I noticed is that some of the convention officers looked a little bit busy (and I may have noticed that only because I’ve been in that situation before) — given how big this year’s convention was, if all that happened was that they looked a little busy, that’s a major accomplishment.

Isaac Watts put it well when he wrote:

How pleasant ’tis to see
Kindred and friends agree,
Each in his proper station move,
And each fulfill his part,
With sympathizing heart,
In all the cares of life and love.

That’s a fine description of the Seattle convention. With such a warm singing culture, it was easy to be friendly, and to welcome newer singers. I felt fortunate to meet Devon and Ed, two newer singers, and Aubrey, a long-time singer from Canada. I enjoyed seeing old friends from the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere; and my only regret is that, with so many people at the convention, there were a couple dozen people I didn’t get to talk with.

Saturday

Above: Every good singing needs at least one baby.

Some random moments from the convention:

– I went to church on Sunday morning, and kind of forgot where I was. During the doxology, I sang the bass part (not quite the same bass part as 49t) quite loudly, and realized that no one else was singing harmony, nor was anyone else singing as loudly as I. Fortunately, I was standing next to my cousin’s daughter, who has a fine loud soprano voice, so I didn’t feel too embarrassed. Then the first hymn was a gospel-y arrangement of “This Little Light of Mine,” and forgetting myself again I sang it in my best Cooper book voice; but again, no one else sang harmony. So I toned it down for the rest of the hymns. Back at the convention, I mentioned this to Cornelia from Portland, and she said she had noticed the same thing at her church (of a different denomination). I wondered aloud how we could bring better singing to our respective churches, and Cornelia said she thought it is something you have to do slowly, over time, to loosen people up and get them singing better.

– One favorite moment from the convention: On Saturday afternoon, I wound up in the back bench of the bass section. There were perhaps thirty basses in front of me, and I was sitting between two very fine bass singers, Jordan and Jerry. It was an amazing sound, and I could feel my whole body vibrating, from the resonant chambers in my head through my chest and even down into my legs.

– Another favorite moment: In the last session on Sunday afternoon, I wound up sitting in one of my favorite spots: partway back in the bass section, right next to the altos. And oh, how fabulous those altos sounded. I know we need the tenors and trebles, but when I’m sitting in between a really good bass section and a really good alto section, there are moments when I believe we can do without the higher voices.

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Above: A singer from Bremen, Germany (unfortunately I didn’t get her name) leading on Saturday.

And finally, a few facts and figures: There were over 180 singers in attendance over the two days of the convention, representing three foreign countries (Germany, Norway, and at least two provinces in Canada), and at least half a dozen U.S. states (Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Ohio, Georgia). Over 180 songs led.

Seattle convention, day one

A quick summary of day one of the Seattle convention:— More people this year, from as far away as Bremen, Germany. The singing has been very good indeed; when I got to lead today, the sound in the middle of the hollow square was powerful and resonant. And best of all, the Seattle singers are so friendly, and the food is so very good.

Seattle convention, day one

(Above) This will give you an idea of the size of the class. Lindy, from the San Francisco Bay area, is leading.

Seattle convention, day one

(Above) Here’s the view of the class from the bass section. Ed, a new singer, assisted by Jerry, leading no. 56.

Singing again

AFter a month away from singing due to bronchitis and laryngitis, I was finally able to sing again this week. And what better way to get back into singing than with the Palo Alto singers.

The Palo Alto local singing has been getting really good recently. Some of these folks have been singing together for years and years, which means that the singing starts off with an advantage. But mostly it just seems like the singing is going well; every singing group goes through its ups and downs, and the Palo Alto singing seems to be going up at the moment.

What I especially like about the Palo Alto singing is the excellent intonation. When we’re singing, I can often feel the overtones from the good intonation vibrating in my chest and head. Why has our intonation gotten so good? Perhaps it’s because we have been leading tunes at somewhat more moderate tempos; perhaps it’s because we’ve been singing more than just a couple of verses of each tune, which gives us times to get the intonation exactly right. Mostly, though, I think it’s because we’re relaxed and we take the time to listen to each other. Good intonation requires good listening — you can get the rhythm by watching the leader, you can get the melody by looking at the book, but the only way to be in tune is to listen to the other singers.

We had two new singers today, and I don’t know what it felt like to them, but to my ears they both sounded great right from the start. Now both of them have done lots of other kinds of singing, so they were starting from a relatively high level; but it’s also true that it’s much easier to sing if the group you’re singing with is in tune and in rhythm with each other.

Even though I was still struggling a little on the higher notes — my voice hasn’t quite recovered from the bronchitis, I guess — it felt really good to sing today. It’s amazing what eleven good singers can do inside a room with wood walls and ceiling: I got carried away by the waves of sound.

Ziegler memorial singing

The second annual Dominic Ciavonne Ziegler Memorial Singing took place today. More than forty of us gathered in the Felta Schoolhouse in Healdsburg, California, and sang for five or six hours, with an hour break for dinner in the middle of the day. An all-day singing is a great way to start the year!

Since this was a singing in memory of Dominic, a young singer who died just two years ago at age 23, I was glad that someone led 448b, the one tune Dominic is listed as leading in one of the Minutes Books (at the 2010 Golden Gate All-day Singing). It was also good to see Dominic’s parents, his brother, and several of his relatives, as well as a lot of the singers who had known him through the Berkeley weekly singing. It was also nice to see a range of ages from a baby to people in their seventies — that wide range of ages felt good at a memorial singing.

I thought it was a particularly good singing: like the best of Bay Area singings, it was loud, fast, and joyous. The pitching tended to be fairly high, even by Bay Area standards — some of the tunes felt to me as though they were pitched at or above written pitch — but the higher pitches sounded good in that room, and our intonation stayed generally true even at those high pitches. The tempos, as you’d expect at a Bay Area singing, were fast. The overall effect was joyous.

The Healdsburg Sacred Harp community is a nice group of singers, with a well-deserved reputation for being relaxed and welcoming. I saw that in action today: one of the basses was singing Sacred Harp for the first time today, and we pushed him up to the front bench, and surrounded him with experienced singers, to make sure he would find it easy to get started. That kind of thing was repeated over and over again, little welcoming kindnesses that are so characteristic of the Healdsburg singers. And, thinking back, that’s just the kind of singer Dominic was — he was friendly and welcoming, and invited lots of new folks to come check out Sacred Harp singing.

At the end of today’s singing, the secretary reported that we had more than 40 leaders from four states (California, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas), who led at least 88 tunes. Dinner on the grounds was excellent. It was a lovely small singing with a nice family feel to it — a fitting memorial for a fine tenor singer.

*****

Phil invited singers to stop by his new house in Sebastapol on their way home, and several of us did — there’s one room in the house that he thought would be good for singing, and he wanted to try it out. We sang three tunes in that room, and it really was a fabulous singing space. Let’s hope Phil hosts some singings up there sometime soon.

How slow?

ABout halfway through tonight’s weekly Monday singing in Berkeley, a couple of first-time Sacred Harp singers walked in, and sat in the tenor section. They were friends with Susan, who made sure they sat next to an experienced singer; this is all the way it should be.

Now the Berkeley singing tends to sing tunes at a good fast clip, and tonight was no exception. However, when new singers show up, I think it’s nice to lead one or two tunes at a more moderate tempo, out of politeness to those new signers who are sight-singing nearly every tune for the first time, an exercise which can be tiring.

So I started in to lead a tune at a fairly slow tempo — well, slow by Berkeley standards; I figure I was leading a 4/4 tune at a slow moderato, maybe 84-88 beats per minute. The class kept pushing the tempo, however, so that by the time we had finished singing the shapes we were singing at a fast moderato, say 100-108 beats per minute. I reminded the class to watch my tempo, and we started off singing the words at a slow moderato, but by the end of the tune had sped up about the same amount again.

I ahve experienced this before, and I have watched as better, more experienced leaders than I have had their tempo speeded up or slowed down by the class. Ask any Sacred Harp singer, and they will tell you that whoever is leading is in charge, and that the class always follows the leader — but I think we’re fooling ourselves when we say that, because it’s not entirely true. Local custom can be a stronger force than even the most experienced leader.