All-day singings & conventions

Santa Cruz All Day singing

The Santa Cruz All Day singing was simply delightful. It was a relatively small singing — the greatest number of singers I counted in the room at any one time was 35 — but the room was just right for the size of the group, and there were fabulous singers on every bench.

Some tunes just sound better with a smaller group. I led 504 “Wood Street,” and this was the best I’ve ever heard it: you could hear every part very distinctly and I was able to push the tempo to be a little faster than usual without it sounding in the least muddy. Now “Wood Street” also sounds great in a large group, but the clarity of singing that comes with a small group — more precise timing, more accuracy in tuning chords, more distinct enunciation — made it sound exceptionally good.

After the singing, there were walks on the beach, and then we went back to Ed’s house for some more singing. We sang from the Shenandoah Harmony; we had at least one good sight-singer on each part, so we were able to tackle some challenging tunes. There were some magical moments; our rendering of William Billings’ “Warren” was, I felt, not only accurate but quite tuneful. There were also one or two train wrecks, as you’d expect, but only one or two.

This was my first extended time singing from the Shenandoah Harmony: an hour during the all-day singing, and an hour with a small group after the main singing. There are many things I really like about the Shenandoah Harmony. It includes some of the best tunes from other modern tunebooks, like Billings’ “Brookfield” (also in the Norumbega Harmony), and “Captain Kidd” (in the Social Harp). It includes plenty of material from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which are my favorite eras in the shape note tradition. It has many interesting tunes.

There are also things I find less interesting: William Walker’s “Friendship” is better in his three-part version, with the crunchy tri-tones and weird spare harmony; the back-to-back fermatas used in transcribing “Symyadda” don’t quite capture the feel of the tune for me. But I can understand the reasoning behind these decisions: altos like to have four-part tunes and it’s just about impossible to write a good alto part for “Friendship” (I’ve tried); and transcriptions are difficult — even Ruth Crawford Seeger got in trouble with her overly accurate transcriptions of field recordings (so accurate only trained musicians could perform some of them), which may simply mean that some music has to be learned by ear.

Summing up the Santa Cruz All Day Singing:

Approximately 40 singers came through during the course of the day. 25 singers led 86 tunes. Every single singer was from northern California. When we got home, Carol looked at me and said, “You look ten years younger. That singing was good for you.”


Above: The alto bench mid-morning.


Above: Carolyn bringing in the altos.