The 10th annual Pioneer Valley All-Day Singing took place today in the parish hall of the First Congregational Church of Sunderland, Massachusetts. This singing was sponsored by the Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Community. The Western Mass. Sacred Harp community has the reputation of tending to be a youngish and hip crowd, with vigorous and energetic singers; and they have the reputation of having good turnouts at their singings. I saw evidence of all these things at this year’s Pioneer Valley All-Day Singing.
The average age appeared to be fairly young, with a good selection of tattoos and piercings; and dinner on the grounds featured a good selection of vegan dishes. All this was in keeping with the hip culture of central Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. The singing was indeed vigorous and energetic, and many of the songs were taken at quite a brisk tempo. It will be interesting to see the minutes when they are published, to see just how many songs we got through in the day; it felt as if there were a few more than average. The singers filled the room; the bass section had only one or two empty chairs during most of the day; the altos expanded back into the section of the room where the food was; the tenor section was well-filled; the treble section was perhaps the least full.
I had forgotten how stand-offish New Englanders can be; the only person who talked to me at length was Swiss-German, not a New Englander at all; a few other people noticed that my name tag said I was from California, commented on that, and then ended the conversation. The Western Mass. folks have the reputation of being very welcoming, but that must be in comparison to the general New England culture — but then, I attended one monthly singing in New England for 8 straight months and no one ever initiated a conversation with me, so by comparison the Western Mass. folks were positively chatty. On the other hand, compared to the Minnesota singing I attended last week, Western Mass. was less chatty.
At the same time, I was very impressed by the community-building done during the memorial lesson. When a woman (I did not catch her name) stood up to read the list of people who were ill or who were shut-ins, she began by telling how important it was for her to know that people were singing for her when she was caring for her father in India, and she said it was even more important that people from the local singing sent her cards and notes as well, to let her know they were thinking of her; then she read the list of regular singers unable to attend the singing due to illness or because they were shut ins. After that, a young woman stand up to give the memorial lesson. She preached a lovely and heartfelt brief homily on the inevitability of death (during which she had no qualms about mentioning reliance upon God’s strength), and then read the list of those to be memorialized; the list included names of local singers, as well as people dear to local singers, and the list even included the president of Poland, who died in the past year. The general effect was that the regular singers constituted a tight-knit group who supported one another.
Back to the singing: As I said, the singing was vigorous and energetic; but the tone was sweet and true enough that you wouldn’t say the singers were simply shouting — yes, the altos had that piercing tone that could peel paint, but it was a tone that peeled paint melodically and pleasantly. Rhythmically, nearly all the songs were sung straight, with little or no swing to them; every once in a while, a singer would anticipate the beat, but mostly people sang with the beat set by the leader. I heard little vocal ornamentation, as is typical of New England folk music more generally; a few little slides, an extra eighth note snuck in here and there, but that’s all I heard from my vantage point deep within the bass section.