Singing at home

Why do we sing?

Carl, one of our regular singers, is a graduate student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He’s currently doing research on Sacred Harp singing using the methodology of ritual studies. Before tonight’s weekly singing, he hosted a conversation about Sacred Harp singing, which he recorded for use in his research. Seven or eight people participated in the conversation, and a couple more were present but didn’t say anything.

Carl started out asking us why we come to Sacred Harp singing. He received the responses I would have expected: the haunting beauty of the music, the sense of community, the feeling of continuity of life and death, etc. Also as you’d expect, a number of people spoke about the importance of the egalitarian nature of Sacred Harp singing. (I was hoping to hear their reasons why they thought so, because I’ve experienced Sacred Harp singing as less egalitarian than some folk music communities I’ve been part of; but no one said why they thought Sacred Harp singing was egalitarian, leaving me to wonder about the origin of this widely-held perception.)

I thought one of the most interesting responses came from Linda, who is a member of a Quaker meeting: she saw some similarities between silent meeting for worship and the rituals of Scared Harp singing. (After she spoke, Carl asked me as a minister if I saw any parallels between the liturgy in my church and Sacred Harp rituals, and I had to answer that I saw very little similarity.)

Lucas talked about the relative lack of narcissism in Sacred Harp singing. Lucas is an active amateur musician who plays in two other bands, writes music, etc.; as he put it, Sacred Harp singing is generally free from the “prima dona” musicians one runs into in other settings. He mentioned as an example the singing of Hal, characterizing Hal’s singing as “self-effacing.” Lucas’s comments reminded me of a common thread running through the observations of folklorists who study traditional American musics: that many musicians singing or playing traditional repertoires in traditional settings do not have big egos, and that some of those musicians talk about getting out of the way of the music, or letting the music come through you.

I was also interested in what did not get said. No one spoke about enjoying the organizational end of things, although in most voluntary associations you’d expect to hear from at least a few people for whom leadership opportunities are of importance. No one spoke explicitly about singing as a form of prayer, although that seemed to be implicit in some of the things people said, e.g., when you lead a song for someone who is ill, that sounds like a phenomenon related to intercessory prayer. Only one or two people mentioned the importance of the poetry (and I was one of those one or two); so there was little discussion of the common liturgical notion that hymnody and psalmody are on a continuum that stretches from spoken word through music. And I didn’t hear anyone talk about the healing power of singing Sacred Harp music, although that is certainly a primary reason why I sing.

At this point, it sounds like Carl’s research is more of a sideline for him. I’m fascinated by his idea of applying the methodology of ritual studies to Sacred harp singing, and I’m hoping the topic will be fruitful enough for him to pursue it further.