Some of us had a brief discussion at the Berkeley singing tonight about whether men could sing in the alto section. One person suggested that alto sections are always all women. I thought that there had to be a place for those few men whose strongest voice is their falsetto (i.e., counter-tenors), which places them in the alto section. But did I know of any men who sang with the altos? Yes, I did: Bruce Randall sings in the alto section — you know, that Bruce Randall, the one who has one of his songs in the 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp. But I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with that justification, for Bruce Randall is not a traditional Southern singer.
When I got home, I looked at the relevant section in the Rudiments of Music section of The Sacred Harp, Chapter I, section 5: “The Sacred Harp uses four-part harmony. The parts, in order of increasing pitch, are bass (sung by men), tenor (men and women), alto (usually women)….” So the primary reference source holds out the possibility that men can sing with the alto section, albeit rarely; and presumably there have been some traditional male Southern singers who have sung alto.
This, however, raised another question for me. What about women, like my friend Bette, whose voice gets lower as they get older? In Bette’s case, her voice is now so low that she sings in the bass section of her church choir. We in the northern revival might have the tendency to interpret the Rudiments of Music fairly literally, and lean towards excluding women from the bass section; or we might put the question out on the Fasola email list — appealing to a higher authority, assuming that someone out there with a broader knowledge of the tradition could tell us about a time when a traditional Southern singing included a woman, or women, in the bass section.