All-day singings & conventions

National Sacred Harp Convention

According to today’s The Birmingham News:

About 200 people attended the first day of the 32nd annual National Sacred Harp Singing Convention on Thursday at First Christian Church on Valleydale Road, keeping alive a tradition that dates back centuries. …

Sacred harp [sic] never died out in Alabama and has experienced a world-wide renaissance. A group of five people from the United Kingdom sang Thursday in the convention. [p. 6B]

Early on, one of the elders of the convention (I didn’t catch his name) stood up to lead a lesson, and prefaced it by saying that things had gotten a little out of synch yesterday. He suggested, earnestly and forthrightly, that the class should look at the leader as much as they look at their books. He also mentioned something about someone who led two songs in a row yesterday. Apparently by missing the first day of the convention, I missed a certain amount of turmoil.

At lunch time, I wound up sitting at a table with two of those people from the U.K., along with a woman from Ireland, a man from Chattanooga, a woman from Massachusetts, a man from Knoxville, and Leland who sings with the Berkeley local singing in the summer. The Irishwoman, the Chattanoogan, and the two people from Yorkshire had all attended Camp Fasola earlier in the week, and had been at the convention yesterday.

“It sounds much better today,” said one of the campers. “Yes, there were problems with the front bench yesterday,” said another, adding that the people on the front bench were not together. Then there was cheerful talk of checking one’s ego at the door, and comments about how one person on the front bench still wasn’t quite in synch. “You’ve got to watch the leader,” said one, “after all, in a class this big, they’re the only ones most people can see.”

But today, the class was singing together, and it sounded pretty good. Not that it was a unified sound — in the bass section, I could hear a singer from New England who had clearly had some voice lessons, someone with a nasal yelp, and several Southern singers with that big open-throated warm bass sound and a strong rhythmic pulse. The altos sounded a little more homogenous: they tended to come together on that lovely piercing tone that sounds so characteristic of Sacred Harp altos. The trebles were more of a mixed sound. And there must have been close to a hundred tenors, so really all I could say about them is that they sounded loud. When you come right down to it, there were so many singers that it would have been almost impossible to have a unified sound.

All of this leads me to conclude that one thing I had heard about the Nation Convention was quite true: it doesn’t have its own distinctive sound. People are coming from all over the country (and now from overseas) and many bring their own distinctive singing styles; many singers show up for one or two days, so in any given convention there are always people coming and going; I’m sure there are many people like me who simply can’t come every year. There is no way to get a distinctive sound when you have people coming and going.

Like many national conventions, meeting people you haven’t seen in a while is probably as important (or more important) than the ostensible convention program. The names of people called to lead songs were a sort of Who’s Who of Sacred Harp: Buell Cobb, David Ivey, Warren Steele, Judy Hauff, and so on. I was most impressed, however, when an older African American woman from Florida (I didn’t catch her name) stood up to lead a song, and was introduced as the youngest daughter of Judge Jackson — yes, that Judge Jackson, the one who compiled The Colored Sacred Harp. The class applauded her after she was introduced; then she led number 172, and under her direction the class sounded better than it had all day, and when she got done, there was a sort of little pause, and then the class applauded again. It turned out to be the best singing of the day.

I ran into Leland during the break, and we both noticed that the average age of the singers seemed to be quite high. Leland said he had gotten used to singings where there were quite a few younger people, and this was a bit of a surprise. I said I felt like I lowered the average when I walked in the room, and I’m fifty.

Leland also told me about the fellow who had led two songs yesterday: he stood up, and the class did one thing when he was expecting them to do something else, and he just said, well let’s sing a different song. It must have been an exciting day yesterday; I’m glad I missed it.