We had to drive up from Birmingham, so I arrived about half an hour late to the annual singing at the Macedonia Church in Macedonia, Alabama. Carol dropped me off, and drove off to walk through Cathedral Caverns while I was singing.
From the moment I walked in the door, it was obvious that these people had sung together for a long time — generations, really. You can tell when a group of singers knows each other well; there’s a unity of purpose that comes with long acquaintanceship, and that can only come with lots of time spent singing together.
I wanted to sit in the back of the bass section and mostly listen, but there were only five other basses, so there wasn’t a place for me to hide; I had to sing, though compared to them I was rhythmically sloppy. And they sang faster than I was used to, so I missed some eighth notes here and there. But perhaps that’s the best way to listen: sit in your section, try to keep up with the people next to you, keep your voice down, and listen to how the other sections interact with yours.
As people were called up to lead a lesson (most leaders did two songs in a lesson), I began to realize that there were an awful lot of Iveys and Woottens in this singing. Or to put it another way, I was singing with Sacred Harp aristocracy, so I hoped to sit in the back bench of the tenors and not lead a song; I don’t much like to lead in any case.
But after the morning recess, the basses got me to sit on the front bench for a while, and when the chair asked me to lead a lesson, I said I guessed I would. Not that I led the lesson; the front bench of the tenors led the lesson. The second tune I led took off at such a fast clip that I just waved my hand up and down, and hung on for dear life until the end.
At lunch, I wound up sitting and talking with one of the basses. I said I was surprised that there were so few basses; only about half a dozen of us, when there were a good forty or fifty tenors. (There were perhaps seven altos, and maybe eight trebles.) He said it was a little surprising, and hadn’t always been that way. Then we got to talking about universalism — turns out he’s in the universalist camp, theologically speaking, and is a little disappointed in Rob Bell for not quite going all the way — and that conversation consumed us for the rest of lunch.
After lunch, and before the afternoon session, the chair invited a visiting Irishwoman to sing for the class; she had been at the National Convention. She said she came from a family of singers in Ireland, who sang in both Gaelic and English. Then she sang a lovely song in Gaelic, which she told us was about a woman who lost her own true love and was so stricken by grief that she lost all faith, even her faith in Christ. She had a remarkably fine voice, and we applauded her vigorously when she had finished.
As the afternoon session was winding down, the chair again invited me to lead a lesson, and to be a good guest I stood up and asked for number 38 on the bottom, Windham. I said to the front bench of the tenors that I was a preacher, and therefore accustomed to the choir running things, but that Windham struck me as being a little depressing, and I thought we should take it slow. Yes, the front bench told me, that’s a slow one. Not wanting to take up too much time, I said we’d just sing one verse, the fourth. Oh no, said the front bench of the tenors, we’ll sing the first and fourth. I laughed, and said, You see, the choir does really run things, which made them break up laughing.
Another moment worth mentioning: One young woman got her flaxen-haired daughter, who appeared to be all of five years old, to lead number 77 on the top, Child of Grace. The girl really followed her mother’s hand motions, but she did it very well. This is the real strength of a strong front tenor bench: their strength can help a five-year-old to lead a good lesson.
Of course everyone was very nice, and very welcoming. It was partly Southern warmth and friendliness, and I don’t want to underestimate the power of a culture that places such a high value on hospitality and friendliness. But I think it was also a function of how well the regulars knew each other. I’ve seen this phenomenon in small churches: the churches where everyone knows each other very well, and half of them are related to each other, can be the most welcoming churches there are; the people already know each other so well, they can devote their complete attention toward welcoming visitors and newcomers.
A few other minor observations: This singing tended to pitch songs fairly low; I certainly don’t have perfect pitch, but by the trouble I had reaching some of the lowest notes, I think they were pitching between perhaps a third and a fifth below the written key. (By contrast, at the National Convention the songs were pitched higher, sometimes I think at written pitch.) This singing tends to sing at a fairly fast tempo, although when I mentioned this to someone at lunch, she pointed out that they sing some songs fairly slowly too; so it’s either pretty fast, or, in a few cases, pretty slow. This singing also sings a few songs from outside the 1991 Denson book, most of which they know by heart, although they also have a collection of photocopied sheets of other songs (not in oblong format, though). Speaking as a minister, as someone who is in the business so to speak, I thought the prayers were particularly good at this singing: public prayers too often lose their way and get convoluted, but these prayers were straightforward and direct and well-spoken.
As I was waiting for Carol to pick me up again, I got to chat with several people, most of whom I invited to come sing with us in Berkeley some time. One or two said they do travel to the Bay area now and again, and might come. I hope they do!