Singing at St. Mary the Virgin

Carolyn organized a fifth Sunday singing in San Francisco, at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Since I had no duties at my congregation I was able to attend. The church is beautiful, and beautifully maintained — a late nineteenth century wood-frame structure. The ceilings were a little higher than Sacred Harp singers prefer, but nevertheless I thought the sound was quite nice. Indeed, the only problem with the sound was that out of about 25 singers, there were only half a dozen men — but that has nothing to do with the building.

What was particularly nice about this singing was that perhaps a dozen members of the church joined us, mostly members of their choir. They were all good singers, and seemed to pick up Sacred Harp singing quickly. As it turns out, their music director, Chip, has had them sing from The Southern Harmony, and some of them had even accompanied Chip to the Big Singing in Benton, Kentucky. So they knew what shape-note singing should sound like!

After the break, Chip, the music director, led us in a couple of tunes by William Walker from the Southern Harmony. He told the altos that at the Big Singing, altos were not supposed to sing with the basses, and usually sang with the trebles. I love William Walker, and it was both interesting and fun to sing several of his tunes in his original arrangements — makes me want to go to the Big Singing myself some day.

2014 Palo Alto All-day Singing

Once again this year, the third annual Palo Alto All-day Singing was a pleasant low-key friendly singing. Sure, I like the excitement of big singings and conventions. But I also like the singings with forty or so people, because in the course of the day you can actually get to talk with everyone. And the Palo Alto church lends itself well to socializing.

We had about 42 adults and 8 kids. We think of this mostly as a regional singing, and we had people from the following local singings: Fresno, Davis, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Palo Alto. Even though this singing is aimed at those of us in Northern California who have a hard time traveling to other all-day singings, we always welcome a few out-of-town singers, and we were pleased to welcome southern California singers, a New Yorker and a Pennsylvanian. We also had a Polish singer, a musicologist who is spending a year at Stanford, and I felt pleased that I could introduce him to an anthropologist who has done some study of Sacred Harp, and a folklorist/performer.

We sang something like 93 songs, with two song lessons in the morning, and one song lessons in the afternoon. (This is another benefit of a small singing — you get to lead more tunes!) We had a couple of new singers, and at least one singer who’s been singing since the 1960s (though I think she started with the Christian Harmony).

Here are some photos of the day:


Above: Jeff leading in the morning. We had a really good bass section today, and you can see many of them in this photo.


Above: Linda, one of my favorite leaders, as seen from the bass section.


Above: Dinner-on-the-grounds outdoors on the patio, in perfect Northern California summer weather. Just out of the frame to the left is little Cecil, who, though not quite three years old, is already learning how to beat time while saying “Fa, fa, fa, fa, fa….”


Above: Chris Thorman, our chaplain, leading a tune. One of the highlights of the day for me were Chris’s prayers: very much in the Sacred harp tradition, they warmed my soul.

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.


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.


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.


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.