During a recent four-week drive across the country, I got to sing in Portland, Maine. This was written back then, revised and posted three weeks later.
About a dozen people came to sing in the monthly Portland (Maine) singing: at one point I counted two tenors, two trebles, three altos, and five basses, though those numbers changed somewhat during the course of the afternoon. The venue, Portland New Church, a Swedenborgian church, was a small wood-frame building; we sang in the main auditorium, a room which was open up to the roof. Despite the high ceiling, the sound was lovely — perhaps the reverberation time was a little longer than would be preferred by many Sacred Harp singers, but more on that later.
It was a real pleasure to sing in eastern New England once again. Sacred Harp singers in eastern New England sing the way people used to sing in the church I grew up in outside Boston: no vibrato, little ornamentation, and a strong but restrained sense of rhythm. When I got into high school and started hearing New England contra dance bands, it was the same kind of sound as my church — simple, un-ornamented music. In addition, eastern New England Sacred Harp singers tend towards a tuning that sounds to my ear (for want of a better term) very pure; some kind of just intonation, I guess, that produces lots of harmonics; whatever the exact musical term, the block chords all sound wonderfully rich to my ear.
Hearing this sound again made me remember the first Sacred Harp convention I went to: the 2008 New England Sacred Harp convention in Walpole, New Hampshire. I drove up with Ken, a treble and a delightful man whom I had run into previously at church events, the New England Folk Festival, and dulcimer conventions. It was a prefect New England fall day, and we sang in a picture-perfect New England church on a town green. So I was predisposed to love the whole experience even before the convention began. And the singing was indeed lovely from the beginning. But then, midway through the morning someone stood up to lead a Lowell Mason tune — I think it was 147t Boylston — and I was immediately transported back to my childhood church. We had sung a lot of Lowell Mason in that church, and we sang it just the way the New England Convention sang it that fall day in 2008, only the Convention sang it better because in my childhood church not many of us knew how to sing anything but the melody. I think that moment in 2008 was when I got really hooked on Sacred Harp, and knew it was something I’d be singing for quite a long time. People talk about various southern Sacred Harp singing styles, they talk about the Western Mass. style, or Chicago style of singing, and these are held up as the “best” singing; but I’ll take the warmth and simplicity of eastern New England singing over anything else.
I noticed that the Portland singers tended to sing slower than we usually do in the Bay area. They sang slower, and their tuning was excellent, and they dwelt on sustained block chords. Perhaps the long reverberation time of the Portland New Church pushed them a little in that direction. But it also felt like a lot of traditional New England music: not too fast, not overly ornamented, taking time to enjoy the music. My limited experience of traditional southern singing is that it can tend towards the urgent expression of religious passion; from a religious standpoint, New England singers strike me as more inclined to the meditative; and, mind you, while they are different, both are equally valid expressions of the religious impulse.
When I stood up to lead a tune, I admit to feeling a little like a bull in a China shop. I have become fully indoctrinated into the fast and furious Bay Area style of leading. I apologized in advance if I led a song too fast; they told me that as the leader I got to choose the tempo; and then of course, I set a tempo that was faster than they were used to and they tended to slow down. I let them slow down; regional traditions should take precedence; and I enjoyed it when they did slow me down.
When I got back to the week-long church camp I was staying at, someone asked me how the singing was. “Fantastic,” I said. “Better than I could wished for.”