Singing at home

When not to lead “Amsterdam”

Singing in the Sacred Harp tradition is like singing in a smallish church choir: you don’t know from week to week who is going to show up.

This week in the middle of the singing we had 8 basses, 6 tenors, 4 altos (including one man singing countertenor), and 2 trebles. The two trebles were both very strong singers, which turned out to be a good thing. Without thinking, I stood up to lead 84 “Amsterdam,” in several measures of which only the basses and trebles are singing. As I started, I realized that it probably wasn’t a wise choice. But those two strong trebles, Carl and Shelbie, held their own against four times as many basses.

If I were a better Sacred Harp singer, I would have thought twice about leading “Amsterdam” tonight. If I were a really good Sacred Harp singer, I would have been listening to the various sections and would have known that Carl and Shelbie could hold their own with the basses, and would not have worried about leading “Amsterdam.” But I am not a good singer, and naively went ahead and led what I wanted to lead, and it just happened to work out.

Singing at home

Theology and Sacred Harp singing

In his essay “Sacred Harp Singing,” Stephen Marini assess the religiousness of Sacred Harp singing in the urban revival, and says in part: “The religious meaning of Sacred Harp today, I think, reflects the displacement of the sacred from primary religious institutions to secondary expressions… Northern [sic] singers have grown up after modernization disenchanted the worldview of primary religious institutions. They are secular urban individuals who have found in Sacred Harp a secondary expression of sacrality that fits well into their disparate and often eclectic worldviews.” (in Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music and Public Culture [Chicago: University of Illinois, 2003], pp. 86-87)

After the weekly singing tonight, I spent half an hour discussing theology with another singer. We compared his Calvinist theology with my Unitarian Universalist theology. It was one of the better theological discussions I’ve had in some months. And because we were not having the discussion within a formal or traditional religious setting, I guess Marini is correct: our conversation was a small example of the displacement of the sacred from primary religious institutions.

By way of contrast, I was talking with a couple of other signers last week who said they feel no religious content at all in Sacred Harp singing — it’s just music for them. And I suppose this is why last weekend the Portland Sacred Harp group had a singing school to teach singers about properly emphasizing the words of the songs. For those of us for whom the words have some level of meaning (in my case, very figurative and metaphorical but not less religious meaning), it is intuitively obvious where the proper emphasis belongs; but for those who feel no religious content in the songs might not think much about the words at all.

All-day singings & conventions

19th Annual Sacred Harp Singing Convention, Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon

The Portland convention opened this year with a sort of singing school. Tom Malone of Molloy College taught us about appropriate emphasis for different time signatures. He was an engaging speaker, and seemed very knowledgable. His presentation reminded me of countless such presentations in the urban folk revival, where an expert tells us urbanites how to properly perform music that comes from a cultural and geographic location far from where we are sitting. Tom Malone told us how Elmer Kitchens was a Primitive Baptist preacher who knew his Bible and knew how to properly emphasize the poetry of the songs he wrote. Most of us urban revivalists never feel quite secure in our knowledge of proper performance techniques, and we depend on such lectures and workshops to keep us properly in the tradition.

I noticed that when the singing started, immediately after the singing school, everyone sang rather sweetly, as if singing in a choir. But after an hour had gone by, the singing had gotten free and even wild. It’s good to know the tradition, but knowledge alone isn’t enough; if the Spirit isn’t moving the singers, the singing falls flat.

At lunch time, I ate with the chair of the convention. It turned out that we are both church-goers, and our conversation drifted away from Sacred Harp to some extent. We both agreed that we dislike praise bands in church. She made a good point about projecting the words to hymns on a screen in front of the worship space: those projected words give you no information about tune or rhythm, and just a little bit of knowledge about reading music can make it so much easier to sing. “If I were going to church tomorrow, and I can’t because I’ll have to be here, I’d go late,” she said. “So you could miss the praise band and the praise songs,” I said, and we both laughed.

We talked about how white the singers were at the Portland convention; she was one of the few people of color in the room. “I don’t understand why it’s so white here,” I said. “Well, I come from the Black church tradition, and we didn’t have any of these [pointing to her Sacred Harp book] at my church,” she said. “But neither did we!” I said. “I remember some Lowell Mason tunes, and of course we had Coronation — I think everyone had Coronation — but nothing else from The Sacred Harp.”

We didn’t come to any conclusions, but both of us like the music very much. “I tell everyone about it, because I think everyone should sing it,” she said.

Reading list

Why people went to early singing schools

Noted without comment:

The singing-school’s enormous popularity during the 18th century was obviously due to more than a great love for music or for learning. Here was a rare chance for approved social intercourse between boys and girls. No doubt the youngsters welcomed the break in routine provided by the chance to learn to read music, but they also used the singing-school as a place where they could make new friends, exchange notes, flirt, walk home together after lessons, and, in general, enjoy themselves. As an example of what went on, one might cite a letter, written in an unguarded moment, from a Yale undergraduate to his friend Simeon Baldwin (later a distinguished New Haven attorney) in 1782:

“…at present I have no Inclination for anything, for I am almost sick of the World & were it not for the Hopes of going to singing-meeting tonight & indulging myself a little in some of the carnal Delights of the Flesh, such as kissing, squeezing &c. &c. I should willingly leave it now, before 10 o’clock & exchange it for a better.”

It is easy to see that many marriages must have grown out of singing-meetings, and the old tune-books show plenty of handwritten evidence of incipient love-affairs of long ago.

from “The American Tradition of Church Song,” by Irving Lowens, in Music and Musicians in Early America (New York: Norton, 1964), pp. 282-283.

Singing at home

Lining out

At tonight’s singing, after the break, Susan stood up to lead the class in no. 163b, “China.” Several people had had to leave during the break, and we were down to less than 20 singers; yet in spite of that, my sense was that the singing was stronger; we had hit our stride. Susan asked for all three verses, which we sang quite well — loud and true and with good rhythm — and then Susan told us there’s a fourth verse, which she would line out for us.

I have never heard of anyone lining out a verse for a Sacred Harp class. indeed, the old New England singing schools, from whence the Sacred harp tradition springs, was begun to replace the old chaotic lining-out of hymns with Regular Singing. As Regular Singing continues to die out in churches, the lining-out of hymns is making a modest come-back in some worship services; I’ve lined out a few hymns myself, and rather like it. But, as I say, it was odd to hear lining-out in a Sacred Harp class.

Susan would barely get the words out of her mouth when the class would respond with a rush of sound, not even waiting for her to mark time. I have never heard a lined-out hymn sound so good. There was no stumbling or fumbling for words; Sacred Harp singing develops a singer’s memory. There was no hesitation about the music; even though we were all looking at our books, Sacred Harp singing turns singers into excellent sight-readers, so even the distraction and novelty of lining-out did not distract the class from singing the music. There was no need to wait for Susan to mark time; the Sacred Harp tradition cultivates musical leadership among all singers.