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.