All-day singings & conventions

Jolly Memorial all-day singing

The Jolly Memorial All-day Singing is held in a building in Old Poway Park in Poway, California, and sponsored by San Diego area Sacred Harp singers. There were more than 40 singers who came at some time during the day, but the most I counted at any one time was 36. I was told that it was a lighter turnout than usual. There were three of us down from the San Francisco Bay area, and several from Los Angeles, but I believe all those who came were from California. At the end of the day, the secretary of the singing told us that 28 people led a total of 70 songs; most of those who led songs led three songs.

Although there wasn’t a large number of people, the singing was loud, accurate, and joyful. It seemed to me that a few strong voices pretty much carried each section, with the rest of us filling out the sound. The resonance of the space also helped; with a wood floor and ceiling, the sound was mellow and lively.

As with any singing, there were some minor local peculiarities. The singing did not open with “Holy Manna,” nor did it close with “Parting Hand” (the closing song was “Christian’s Farewell,” which I have heard used to close local singing sessions). One person pitched all the songs (with the exception of two or three people who pitched their own songs), and occasionally she used a tuning fork as she was deciding what pitch to give. No collection was taken, since there was no charge for using the building — typically the biggest single cost for an all-day singing — and the chairman of the singing paid for whatever other minor incidental expenses arose. There were two business sessions, one at the beginning of the day to formally elect the officers (who were already carrying out their duties), and one at the end of the day for resolutions, etc.

The majority of the singers were middle-aged or older. There was, however, a contingent of some six or eight younger people, probably in their late twenties. All but one of them worked for the same non-profit organization, “Invisible Children.” I chatted with one young man who was wearing a Boston Red Sox hat, and it turned out that although he was originally from eastern New England, he had come out to San Diego to work for this nonprofit. Another of them, a young woman, stood up to lead no. 134 in honor of one of their co-workers who had been killed in a bomb blast while working for the non-profit in Uganda.

I found this group to be very friendly and welcoming. It seemed to me that all of the San Diego regulars found it easy to initiate conversations with newcomers and visitors, and they were more than willing to join in a conversation if someone else started talking. I talked to two different singers who had grown up in the south, and whose families had sung Sacred Harp music when they were young; one of them was from Alabama, and one was from Georgia. Another woman with whom I chatted is a professor at UCLA who will be teaching a for-credit Sacred Harp class for the first time this fall. When the song “Boylston” was called, the man sitting next to me in the bass section whispered that this was the song that they had sung for him not too long ago when he was in the ICU.

At the end of the day, after the second business session, the chairman called on us to sing no. 347, “Christian’s Farewell.” There was the usual shaking of hands (not much hugging with this group, though), for those who knew the song well enough to be able to look away from their books. And as usual, several of the newer singers hadn’t been let in on the secret: that you’re supposed to know the song well enough to be able to shake hands. On my way out, I overheard the young woman who had led the memorial lesson talking to the young man in the Red Sox hat, as she was saying something to the effect of: “I don’t know the song, I didn’t know whether to look down at the book and sing, or stop singing and try to shake hands with everyone.” I stopped and said, “It’s terrible, isn’t it? It’s the worst of the Sacred Harp traditions.” She and the young man suggested that maybe it’s a tradition that shouldn’t be continued, and I replied that at the very least the local singing should practice that closing song every week for months ahead of time, and let people know ahead of time about the shaking of hands.


Six of us gathered for dinner after the singing, three from San Diego, and the three of us from the Bay area. Over dinner, Jerry Schreiber, one of the core personalities of the San Diego singers, told us a little bit about the history of the San Diego singers. It had started out as a group that was really led by a single person, someone who had had little or not contact with the oral tradition of Sacred Harp singing; this was someone who had learned it out of the 1971 edition of the Denson book. “We didn’t sing the notes,” Jerry told us; instead, the leader of the group taught each group its part. (It’s worth noting that I also learned that during the local singings, which they sometimes call “practice singings,” they still sometimes take the time to go over individual parts.)

Eventually, the San Diego singers made contact with other Sacred Harp singers. One of the earliest contacts was when Carolyn Deacy invited them to join in the first All-California Convention. This convention, I gathered, was their first big experience singing with other Sacred Harp singers. Interestingly, Jerry had had a much earlier experience with Sacred Harp singing. In the late 1970s, he had been living in the Toronto area, and was a part of the folk scene there. Joe Hickerson, who had apparently listened to some field recordings, decided to put on Sacred Harp singing at an annual folk festival, and Jerry and others who had helped with that decided they wanted to keep on singing this compelling music. They met monthly at a local pub called Fiddlers Green. Some time after Jerry moved from Toronto to San Diego, that early Toronto group disintegrated.

It’s interesting to hear the different stories of how the local singings of the northern revival got started. The stories of the San Diego singing, and that early Toronto singing, share in some common themes: the intersection of the northern revival and the urban folk revival of the 1970s; the role played by charismatic central figures, some of whom had no knowledge of, and no real interest in, the Southern oral tradition of Sacred Harp singing; the isolation of some local singings in the era before the World Wide Web made communication much easier.

2 replies on “Jolly Memorial all-day singing”

Thanks for this. I sing Sacred Harp in New York, where the traditionalist revival is well under way, and I am fascinated and delighted by, but also to an extent ambivalent about, the appeal to authority and the One True Way. How much of the O.T.W. comes out of some individual’s decision in the past? I’m almost envious of those who sang Sacred Harp in an Edenic innocence.

nbm @ 1 — One of the things I’m particularly interested in is how we Sacred Harp singers appeal to authority. We often hear singers appealing to Southern traditional singers as the authority for some practice we engage in. But there is no monolithic Southern Sacred Harp tradition to which we can appeal. Musically, when you listen to field recordings, you can find justification for both slow and fast tempi for a given song; you can find justification for straight rhythms and swung rhythms; etc. There are the schisms that led to alternative song books (Cooper book vs. Denson book, etc.). Some wonderful early commercial Sacred Harp recordings included instruments; and the very fact that traditional singers in the mid-20th C. did commercial recordings should make us question the usual assertion that this has always been a non-commercial, non-performance tradition.

At the same time, singers in the northern revival have to figure out how to establish some boundaries. When I heard the Revels chorus in Cambridge, Mass., sing music from the shape note tradition, it didn’t sound like Sacred Harp music to my ears. Or listen to Paul Hillier’s vocal ensemble, the King’s Clerkes, in their recording of Billings’s “David’s Lamentations” — it’s beautifully done, but it’s not Sacred Harp music. So where do we draw the line?

And of course, we can expand this same discussion from music qualities to the social norms of Sacred Harp singing.

At some level, we all know that there is no “One True Way,” nor has there ever been. The Sacred Harp tradition has constantly been evolving and continues to evolve; it has always had several interlocking sub-traditions, and will always do so.

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