All-day singings & conventions

National Sacred Harp Convention, pt. 2

It seemed to me that there were more younger people on the last day of the National Sacred Harp Convention; today was not quite the sea of gray heads that I saw yesterday. Not that there’s anything wrong with gray hair; that’s now officially my hair color on my driver’s license. But I like it best when there’s a more even distribution of ages.

After the first break, two girls in their early teens stood up together to lead the class. The tenor front bench reminded them to announce the number of the tune they were leading, and once they got the pitch, they started right in. When they had finished, I heard someone from the tenor front bench, and someone else from further back in the tenors, say the same thing in approving voices: Good job.” The girls smiled as they walked out of the hollow square.

Then a middle-aged woman from the altos was called, and she brought an older teenaged girl with her into the hollow square. The girl stood where I couldn’t see her, so I don’t know how well she led, but I do know that she was smiling pretty broadly when the tune was over.

A little later on, a young man, perhaps in his early twenties, was called into the hollow square and invited an older woman to stand there and lead with him. He obviously knew what he was doing. And there you have something of a progression of ages: two young teens who need each other’s support, and an older teenager who didn’t mind having an adult nearby when leading; and then the young adult who is more competent than some of us older adults.

I’ve been talking with Carl in the Berkeley singing about the similarities between the rituals of Sacred Harp singing, and the rituals and liturgies of U.S. Protestant Christian churches. We all know the obvious similarities: the singing of hymns; an opening prayer at a convention; the closing song at a convention where everyone shakes hands is much like passing the peace; there are even sermons at Sacred Harp convention, those brief homilies given during the memorial lesson.

Something else that the Sacred harp tradition borrows from smaller Protestant Christian congregations is the assumption that everyone knows everyone else. A case in point: towards the end of the day, the chair of the convention stood up and said that a number of people were going to go out to dinner that evening, as they usually did, and if you wanted to go there would be a flyer with directions in the lobby, or just see so-and-so and so-and-so — and he rattled off names that I couldn’t catch, and wouldn’t have known who they were even if I could catch them.

This sounded so like announcements in the churches I have served that I had to smile: the announcements before Sunday service saying, in effect, that event that we all know about (except those of you who are new) is going to happen, and you should just talk to some people we all know (except those of you who are new). So the old-timers who already know understand the announcement (but probably don’t need to hear it anyway), and the newcomers are pretty much left in the dark. I’ll bet the majority of the people at the singing today were churchgoers, and that’s just the way smaller American churches do things. Unfortunately, as I’ve said to my churches frequently, that’s not a good way to integrate newcomers. What about the flyer? you ask. Well, even though I was planning to have dinner with Carol, when I went out to the lobby I looked for the flyer with the map, and didn’t see it anywhere; if it was there, it wasn’t in an obvious place.

One of the reasons I like the Berkeley singers so much is that we are pretty good at communicating information to newcomers. Maybe this is because many of our people are not churchgoers, and so don’t have any bad habits to break.

Now I’ll climb down off that particular soap box, and give you some statistics for this year’s National Convention: 699 registered singers who came from twenty-five states (7 from California), and three foreign countries (Canada, U.K., and Ireland). There may have been some unregistered people who just came to observe, and maybe sing a little, but it’s tough to count them. Total cost was just under $7,000, and collections were projected to meet expenses. Fed 276 people at lunch on Friday, the biggest day. Better than 80 songs were led on Thursday, and 90 or so on Friday. Those are the official statistics; unofficially, I’d say that hundreds of singers had a really good time.