Carol and I are driving across the country, and I arranged the trip so we could stop in Minneapolis on the day that the University of Minnesota local weekly singing, in the Dinkytown neighborhood of Minneapolis, was taking place. I found my way to University Baptist Church after a little bit of trouble (Google Maps told me to look on the wrong side of the street). As I walked up to the church building, a man sitting outside said, “Looking for the singing? Go through that door and follow the sound.”
I heard the singing before I got to the door, and wound my way up two flights of stairs. Even though there were only a dozen or so people, the volume was already quite high; in part because it was such a live room, but also this was clearly a bunch of high-volume singers. I took my accustomed place in the back bench of the bass section, and settled in for some good singing, for these singers were not just loud, they were fine singers.
Unlike our local singing in Berkeley where we go around the hollow square giving each person a chance to lead, at the Dinkytown singing people stand up to sing when they feel like it. This is what I was used to back east, and it’s much easier for newcomers and those of us who just don’t care to lead. I noticed that the songs we sang were ones with which I was mostly unfamiliar; most of the songs were from the mid-19th century, or from the late 20th century, with the exception of one by William Billings and one by Daniel Read.
Just before the break, attendance peaked. I counted seven in the bass section, perhaps a dozen altos, perhaps ten tenors, and four trebles (though their volume belied their small numbers). Ages of singers ranged from early teens to elders (and one baby, who got moved from lap to lap during the singing).
During the break, I got to talking to one of the other basses, and asked him about how this local singing started up. He said that the original core group of singers had come to Minneapolis from all over — some from Chicago, a couple had sung with Norumbega Harmony outside Boston, and so on. But from the beginning, he said, they took their inspiration from the traditional Southern singers. A tenor who joined the conversation said something to the effect that the traditional Southern singers are the authoritative interpreters of Sacred harp music. Not wanting to get into one of those long conversations about urban revivals of traditional music, I gradually changed the subject.
Both these men were older than I, and both of them also said that they were proud of the fact that their group included a lot of younger singers. I asked if there were a course at the University of Minnesota that fed new younger singers into their local singing, and they said no. Sometimes a class would make a field trip, said the bass, and suddenly they’d have twenty or thirty visitors one week, but there was no class in Sacred Harp music (as there is at some universities). But newcomers find it easy to learn to sing Sacred Harp in Minneapolis, the bass said, because there are seven singings each month — this weekly singing, and three monthly singings.
I found it a pleasure to sing with these singers; they sang so loud and so true that you could just let yourself be carried away by the music.