I had hoped to attend the open monthly singing of Norumbega Harmony today, but the demands of a professional conference kept me from attending. But I’ll record a few memories from the times I attended this singing in 2009.
Norumbega Harmony is an atypical local singing. The core group of singers meet weekly to sing together in an invitation-only singing, and once a month they host an open singing. They have a “singing master,” Stephen Marini, who founded the group in 1976 (prior to any contact with Southern singers) and continues to be a central force. They perform Sacred Harp music; they are not purely participatory. In addition to singing from the Denson revision of the Sacred Harp, they have long sung other material gleaned from old New England songbooks, and in 2003 finally published their own songbook.
What I noticed most in the three or four times that I came to one of their open singings was how friendly everyone was; it was the most welcoming local singing I have attended. Perhaps because the regular singers see each other every other week of the month, they are much more open to meeting and welcoming newcomers. (Indeed, the second time I attended with my friend Ted, who is an experienced singer with a full bass voice and the ability to sight-sing, we were invited to join the regular weekly group; I can see why Ted was invited, but that I was invited to join shows that it’s a pretty open group.) This was by far the friendliest New England singing I attended; it felt much like the friendliness and openness of the Boston-area folk music scene.
While Norumbega Harmony is an atypical local singing, they are not entirely atypical in New England, and in some ways follow the pattern set by Larry Gordon’s revival of Sacred harp singing in northern New England: charismatic central figure, interest in performance and recording, digging up old New England choral music. The Western Massachusetts Convention also follows this pattern, with Tim Ericksen as the charismatic central figure, Ericksen’s publication of old choral music, and the series of recordings issued by the convention.
As is characteristic of the New England folk scene, some of Norumbega’s singers also sing in other folk music ensembles: Bruce Randall (alto) is a central force in the revival of West Gallery music in New England, Ken Mattson (treble) sings with other semi-professional folk ensembles, “Ishmael the fiddler” is (obviously) a fiddler, etc. As is also characteristic of the New England folk scene, the music is performed such that it is relatively devoid of ornamentation (just as New England contra dance bands tend to perform with little ornamentation).
Musically, this is a characteristically New England folk music group, influenced by the forces of historical research, historical re-enactment, the broader folk scene in New England, the early music scene in New England, New England folk musical styles, etc. And socially, this is a characteristically New England folk music group, influenced not only by the Southern traditions of Sacred Harp singing (for they are careful to acknowledge their debt to Southern singers), but also by indigenous New England folk scene, academia, and the urban folk revival.