Singing at home

Singing from The Trumpet

Will Fitzgerald, one of the editors of The Trumpet, the new online publication of new Sacred Harp compositions, was in San Francisco and arranged to have a singing of the first issue of The Trumpet at the Church of the Sojourners. We had a good turn out: four basses, four altos, three trebles, and eight or so tenors (a couple of whom helped out us basses when we got stuck).

We sang through all 14 songs, and I feel we gave most of them a reasonably good hearing, although our intonation wasn’t up to the usual standards of Bay Area singers. I appreciated the fact that the singers were willing to go back and work on a tricky bit now and again — more difficult compositions deserve that attention.

All the music was good, but I especially enjoyed the following:—

  • Buckley by Steve Helwig — a new setting of John Newton’s “Bartimeus,” Book 1, no. XCV in Olney Hymns — had a nice sound and was fun to sing; it was good enough that I wanted more verses, and a repeat on the final ten measures
  • Cedar Street by Charles Wells; the interaction between the tenor and bass parts in the sixth and seventh measures were a little challenging, but fun to sing
  • Girard by Gerald Hoffman had a very good “Sacred-Harp-y” sound to it

Some of the music was quite challenging: Lincoln Street by Dan Hertzler included a raised fourth degree of the scale in the bass part which, though it sounded good when we could actually hit that note, was difficult to sing. And The Trumpet was not limited to the pure Denson book sound; some of the music leaned more towards the gospel sound of the Cooper book, such as the fuguing section of Lincoln Street.

But the best song we sang all evening was not in The Trumpet; it was “Leave the Ground” by James, one of the regular singers at the Berkeley weekly singing. James wrote both the words and the music; both words and music were recognizably related to the Sacred Harp idiom, but stretched the idiom in new and delightful ways. I’ll quote just one verse to give you an idea of what I mean:

Now we must all shake hands and go home,
It’s over and done.
Cherubic cars are waiting,
We must drive till morning light,
Cherubic cars are waiting,
We’ll be all right.

The music made wonderful use of repeated unisons. I hope James publishes this somewhere; for lovely though it is, it’s far enough outside the conventions of the Sacred Harp idiom that I doubt The Trumpet will print it. Update: Of course “Leave the Ground” is published on the Web, with sheet music, full text, and funky version with electric guitar accompaniment.

Singing at home

Who sings Sacred Harp?

I had a conversation with Hannah, one of our altos, who has been singing in a grindcore band up until recently, and now gets her music fix from Sacred Harp. We talked about how different people get drawn to the urban revival of Sacred Harp singing. There are the punk rockers. There are the people who love Renaissance and medieval music. There are the old folkies. There are even avant-garde sound artists. Of course there are the church musicians and the people who just like to sing in church. And there are the people who just like Sacred Harp for no particular reason.

We have all these types of people in the Berkeley weekly singing. Some of us fit into more than one category — I first ran into Sacred Harp while attending a folk festival looking for new music to sing with my church choir, so I fit into the church and folk categories. But I’ve also flirted with early music, and I was a punk rocker at one point in my life. It’s fun asking new people when they show up at a Sacred Harp singing — so, what brought you here?

Other local singings

San Francisco singing

I managed to make it to the new monthly singing in San Francisco this afternoon. The church that’s letting us sing (for free!) asked if we could participate in a short ceremony for peace in the neighborhood in the wake of a recent shooting a short distance from the church which resulted in the death of Parrish Broughton.

I didn’t get out of my church as quickly as I had hoped, so I arrived just after the Sacred Harp singers has sung Hallelujah. The indoor part of the ceremony was finished, and I got there just in time to join a processional down the street to where the shooting took place. This being an Episcopalian church, they knew how to do ritual — good vestments, really good incense, talking just enough but not too much — I felt honored to be a part of what they were doing.

We sang again when we got to the site of the shooting. A member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence did a nice ritual of creating a peaceful piece of spray-painted graffiti art on the pavement where the shooting took place. Someone from the neighborhood had brought some holy water, and asked the rector to sprinkle it, which he did, with a nice prayer. Then, somewhat to our surprise, we were asked to sing again. “Um, how about New Britain?” — upon seeing blank looks from the non-singers, “That’s what we call Amazing Grace.” We sang it. Everyone sang along. And the ceremony was done.

Back up at the church, we settled in to the hollow square. There were perhaps 25 singers at the peak of the afternoon, and the singing was really excellent; one of the best local singings I’ve ever attended.

Reading list

Makers of the Sacred Harp

I found a copy of Makers of the Sacred Harp by Warren Steel at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco a few eeks ago, and since then the book has been sitting in our bathroom, and I’ve been dipping into it now and then. It’s an odd book, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

On the one hand, it should be an indispensable reference work for anyone who sings Sacred Harp music from the 1991 Denson edition, very much in the tradition of the various “Companions” to different hymnals. However, usually a hymnal companion will have information on both the authors of the texts as well as the composers. Steel made the odd decision to include very little information about authors of texts, saying this information is widely available in other reference works — but the whole point of a hymnal companion is to have a one-volume reference work. And I wonder how many Sacred Harp singers are going to have access to a collection of biographies of hymn writers — I’m a working minister, and I don’t have such a reference work. So while this is a good reference work for learning about composers, this book is not what I’d consider to be an adequate one-volume reference work.

If this book is not going to be an adequate one-volume reference for the average singer, I’d expect it it to instead be a work aimed at scholars. But I can’t say it is that, either. There is good scholarly work contained in this book, and any scholar who’s interested in Sacred Harp singing will want it. Having said that, there are some bits that are not particularly scholarly, e.g., the chapter on Sacred Harp and the Civil War has too much on the war (material most scholars won’t bother paying attention to, since it’s not based original research), and not enough on the music. Given that Steel de-emphasized authors of texts so much, I expected more scholarly work on the musical aspects of Sacred Harp, and while some of that is in here, there’s not enough to make this a scholarly work per se.

So the book represents something of a compromise between a work for the non-specialist Sacred Harp enthusiast, and a work for scholars; it’s not quite either fish or fowl. But it’s still a book that most Sacred Harp singers will want to own, if for no other reason than to finally learn who Deolph was.

Singing at home


I overheard a bit of a conversation about pitching at tonight’s singing. This prompted a longer conversation with Marsha on the drive home: we know that the pitch at which we sing a tune is lower than the notated pitch, but by how much?

When I got home, I looked through some notes I had made a year ago when I decided to check actual sung pitches on vintage recordings of traditional Southern singings. Here’s what I found:

  • 38b Windham: Notated in E minor, sung in D minor by Alabama Sacred Harp Singing Convention, 1942 Lomax recording.
  • 45t New Britain: Notated in C major, sung at around A major on “Original Sacred Harp”, 2007 Bibletone re-release of on older recording (1960s).
  • 47b Idumea: Notated in A minor, sung in E minor, by Lookout Mountain Convention, 1968.
  • 49b Mear: Notated in G major, sung in E major on “Fasola – 53 Shape Note Folk Hymns,” 1970 Smithsonian recording.

I had also checked the pitch on one contemporary traditional Southern singing:

  • 39t Detroit: Notated in E minor, sung halfway between D and D# minor on “In Sweetest Union Join,” United Sacred Harp Musical Association, 2003.

So as a rough average, traditional sung pitch is about a third below notated pitch — but actual sung pitches could range from a minor second below notated pitch, to a fifth below notated pitch.

Update: Marsha checked the entire “In Sweetest Union Join” recording and found most songs pitched a major or minor third below notated pitch, though one song was pitched above notated pitch (!), and one song as low as a diminished fourth below.

Reading list

Original words to 117, “Babylon Is Fallen”

The 1991 Denson edition of The Sacred Harp has no attribution for the words of 117 “Babylon Is Fallen.” But according to Warren Steele in Makers of the Sacred Harp, the original words, the words originally appeared in a Shaker hymn book, Millennial Praises, Containing a Collection of Gospel Hymns …Adapted to the Day of Christ’s Second Appearing, which was printed in Hancock, Massachusetts, in 1813. More detail on the origina of the words is offered on a post by “Burke” in this thread on the Mudcat Web site:

…The rest of this [post] is will be summary of the article:
G. W. Williams, “Babylon is Fallen: The Story of a North American Hymn,” The Hymn, Volume 44, April 1993, pp 31-35….

There is no author listed in Millennial Praises. The attribution of the hymn to Richard McNemar appears to be from an article by Daniel W. Patterson in Shaker Quarterly, v.18.

The first stanza of the text appears in a manuscript of tunes from the Enfield, Conn. [Shaker] community and may date to as early as 1810. The original 6 verses are clearly refering to images in Revelation 17-19. “It is clear … that McNemar knew the Revelation passage thoroughly and was closely following its pattern and its precepts.” The text was reprinted in an 1833 Shaker hymnal, but not in later ones.

It was reprinted in non-Shaker books, usually with variations on words, from the 1820’s on. The first verse always remains substantially the same, except for the reference to “the distant coasts of Shinar.” Shinar did not mean much more in the 19th cent. than it does to us today. It means “Babylon in its fullest extent” and is used in the Old Testament to refer to Babylon. [See this article in the online Jewish Encyclopedia for more info. — ed.] Always associated with impiety in some way, the substitution of “courts of Zion” or “our Shiloh” substantially changes the meaning of the second part of the verse. It transforms “cries of despair from the citizens of the ravished city to shouts of triumph from God’s favored people.”

The third verse from the Sacred Harp version was first published in William Houser’s The Olive Leaf in 1878. This was also the book where Chute’s tune was first published so the version most well know now traces most directly to it. Either Houser or Chute may have written the third verse; there’s not really any way to know. This new verse changes the tone of the hymn to emphasizing rejoicing in triumph rather than the desolation in destruction of the original.

Before 1878 at least 2 different tunes were paired with the words in different publications. All apparently suffered from the problem that the chorus does not follow the same 8,7 meter of the verses. The 12,10 of the chorus were somehow forced into the 8,7 pattern of the tunes used.

William Houser first published a six verse version with one of these problem tunes in The Hesperian Harp, 1852. When Houser published it in The Olive Leaf in 1878 with the now familiar tune he headed the entry with the attribution: “Prof. Wm. E. Chute, of Ontario. Prof. Chute composed this tune out of an old theme, and is too modest to claim any originality, but I do it for him.–W.H.” The “old theme” may be Sons of Sorrow [link to words and score of this song].

For completists, here are the Shaker words:

Other local singings

San Francisco Sacred Harp goes monthly

This just in:

As promised, San Francisco Sacred Harp is moving to monthly, our first meeting is February 20.

Sunday, February 20, 2011
1:30 to 4:30
St Aidan’s Episcopal Church
101 Gold Mine Drive (x Diamond Heights Boulevard)
San Francisco, CA 94131

Public transportation: BART to Glen Park BART, 52 MUNI bus to the church.
For driving directions and additional public transportation see:
Parking in the Safeway parking lot is allowed.

Info: Julian Damashek at juliandamashek AT gmail DOT com

Hooray for Julian and Carolyn Deacy for getting San Francisco Sacred Harp up and running again after the loss of the long-term venue on Fair Oaks Street in San Francisco. It’s exciting that it’s going to be monthly now instead of quarterly. (Alas, I won’t be able to go, since I work on Sunday afternoons.)

Singing at home

More voices

A relatively big turnout this evening: before the break, there were perhaps a dozen tenors, five basses, six or seven altos, and half a dozen trebles (I say “perhaps” because several singers kept shuttling between the different sections). The singing was strong; it was fun to have that many people.

After the break, quite a few people had to go home, and our numbers dropped down to four or five in each section. It’s easier to hear individual voices with the smaller group, and easier to hear all the parts. The bigger the singing, the better the sound — no doubt about that. But as much as I prefer that bigger sound, my singing improves more when I sing in a smaller group: I can hear the other singers better, hear how my part interacts with the other voices, hear my own mistakes and hear the mistakes of others.

Other events

“Awake, My Soul”

City Church of San Francisco sponsored a showing of the Sacred Harp documentary “Awake My Soul” this evening (they showed the one-hour cut, not the full four-hour documentary). A good number of Bay Area Sacred Harp singers showed up. Matt and Erica Hinton were both present, and Matt Hinton answered questions from the audience after the film. One of our local singers asked Matt Hinton why the documentary focused on the big conventions, and Hinton gave several answers:– first, from a film maker’s point of view, local singings don’t film particularly well; then too, the sound produced by a big singing simply sounds better.

But the most interesting reason from my point of view is simply that Georgia, where the Hintons live and did much of the filming, is in the heartland of Sacred Harp singing where there is a convention within driving distance nearly every week of the year. He said that for those of us who live outside this heartland, a convention is a big deal that only we only get to experience a few times a year; thus for us, the local or practice singing looms large in importance. This is another way in which Sacred Harp singing of the urban revival outside the South winds up being a substantially different experience than traditional singing.

Reading list

Bylaws and tradition

We’ve been working on setting up Bay Area Sacred Harp as an unincorporated association; up until now, money for conventions and all-day singings got ran through checking accounts of an individual member of BASH, which is not an ideal situation for anyone. California state law allows for unincorporated associations — an easy and cheap way to set up a group entity that legally can have a bank account.

I was one of the people who helped draft the bylaws. We tried to balance the traditions of Sacred Harp singings against the need for fiscal and organizational protection. So, for example, most Sacred Harp business meetings take place during an all-day singing or convention, and everyone present is automatically a member. But what do you do if the organization needs to hold a special business meeting in between annual conventions? — an unlikely occurrence, but a possibility that should be allowed for. And how can you provide at least some protection from the possibility that unscrupulous people could take over control of the organization? — also unlikely but such takeovers have happened to other too-trusting nonprofits. I’m not sure we got the balance just right, but I do feel that managed to favor tradition to some extent over other considerations.

(Draft bylaws are online at the BASH Web site.)