This year’s Pacific Northwest Sacred Harp Convention — Washington (which for convenience I’ll call the Seattle convention) took place in the Sunset Hills Community Center in Seattle over the past two days, February 16 and 17. I was able to attend almost all of the Saturday session, and the last hour and a half of the Sunday session. Here are four brief vignettes of the convention as I experienced it:
(1) I stayed on the back bench of the bass section the whole time I was singing. I prefer sitting on the back bench, even though sometimes those of us on the back bench may sound a little more raggedy than the front bench singers. But the back bench was not raggedy at this convention. The whole bass section was strong, and that strength extended to the back bench, where were seated some very fine singers. I also like to sit as near to the altos as I can, and the alto section at this convention was also strong.
Where I sat turned out to be a good place to sit: the room brightened the sound and emphasized the higher notes, so that even though I was sitting at the back corner between a strong bass section and a strong alto section, I could hear the tenors and trebles clearly; I suspect I was sitting where the best sound was.
And this is the view from where I was sitting (click on the thumbnail below for a larger image):
(2) For much of the afternoon on Saturday, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Mark — he used to live in the Bay Area and I got to sing with him regularly, but he has since moved away. He has a wonderful voice, a sensitive ear, and a strong sense of the tradition, and I enjoyed the chance to sing next to him again. Of course I enjoy singing next singers I’ve never met before, too; another pleasure of conventions is hearing new voices and meeting new people; but it’s also good to sing with people you haven’t seen in a while.
(3) During the afternoon recess on Saturday, Mark and I were sitting on the back bench talking about leading. Mark hasn’t been able to sing Sacred Harp regularly, and he said he didn’t feel quite as sharp as he had in the past. I said that for my part, I would be perfectly happy to leave the leading to the really good singers, people who have been singing all their lives or a good portion thereof — I pointed to Mike Hinton, who had come up to Seattle from Texas, as an example — and I would stay contentedly on the back bench until I had been singing for a quarter century or so. However, Linda and some others in the Berkeley weekly singing had pointed out to me that our local singing needs people like me to step up and lead; we don’t have that many people with a quarter century of Sacred Harp singing behind them; so I do lead regularly at local singings. But, I told Mark, I would just as soon have people like Mike Hinton lead all the tunes at a convention; the singing would be better, and I’d learn more about how to lead.
At this point, Mike happened to walk up and said hello to us. I told him what we were talking about, and he was kind enough to say that we were good leaders. Well, Mark certainly is a good leader; but I replied that I’m just good enough to fill in between the really good leaders; and then Mark changed the subject by asking about the Sacred Harp Musical Association, of which Mike is a board member.
This highlight one of the defining characteristics of Sacred Harp singing in the urban revival on the West Coast. We have almost no singers who have been singing Sacred Harp all their lives. We have a few singers who have been singing Sacred Harp for a quarter century or more, and so have that deeper sense of the tradition that comes only with time. We have quite a few singers with a great deal of musical talent and ability, including professional and semi-professional musicians and academics. We have quite a few amateur singers of modest ability who devote a great deal of time to become the best Sacred Harp singers possible in the shortest time possible.
But most importantly, we tend to have a high turnover rate, with a great many new singers joining us each year, people who stay with us for a few years, then move away, or move on to other musical endeavors. Because of that high turnover rate, we depend not only on the handful of singers who have been singing for a quarter century or more, and on the professional musicians and academics, but also on people like me, singers of modest ability who devote a great deal of time to Sacred Harp. For good or ill, Sacred Harp of the West Coast urban revival is really quite dependent on those of us with modest ability.
(4) Carol and I went to the Seattle convention last year, and found it to be a very friendly and welcoming convention; that’s one reason we decided to return this year. I felt the Seattleites outdid themselves this year; if possible, they were even more welcoming and friendly than last year; not only that, but many of the Seattleites actually remembered Carol and me, and came up and said hello. Dinner on Saturday was also exceptionally good; I wish I could remember who made the pulled pork, and the mixed berry pie, so I could tell them how good those dishes were. And on top of that, the singing was very good: fast, bright-sounding, in tune, and joy-filled.