Category Archives: All-day singings & conventions

2015 All-Cal trivia photo

The day after the All-Cal. The creeping crud has turned into bronchitis, and I can’t sing. All those Sacred Harp tunes going through my head from the last two days? — I’m reduced to playing them on the guitar. Blah.

So I’m amusing myself with trivia. In the photo below from day one of the 2015 All-California Sacred Harp Convention, which singer has been singing shape note music since the 1960s?


2015 Ziegler Memorial photos

Two photos from the 2015 Dominic Ciavonne Ziegler Memorial Singing on New Year’s Day, 2015.


Above: The old Felta Schoolhouse in Healdsburg, Calif. The setting of the Felta Schoolhouse reminds me a little of the setting of some of the traditional Southern singings, like Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Georgia. One of the best singing rooms in northern California.



Above: Marianne leading during the singing.


After the singing, a dozen of us went to Phil and Larry’s new house in Sebastopol for a little more singing. Their new house has an excellent singing room — you could hear every other voice clearly and distinctly. We sang ten or a dozen tunes before we gave out, but it was some of the best singing of the day. Mind you, nothing can replace the big sound of an all-day singing. But, as Susan pointed out, it can be very nice to sing when every singer is really listening to every other singer. We need both kinds of singings.

2014 Palo Alto All-day Singing

Once again this year, the third annual Palo Alto All-day Singing was a pleasant low-key friendly singing. Sure, I like the excitement of big singings and conventions. But I also like the singings with forty or so people, because in the course of the day you can actually get to talk with everyone. And the Palo Alto church lends itself well to socializing.

We had about 42 adults and 8 kids. We think of this mostly as a regional singing, and we had people from the following local singings: Fresno, Davis, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Palo Alto. Even though this singing is aimed at those of us in Northern California who have a hard time traveling to other all-day singings, we always welcome a few out-of-town singers, and we were pleased to welcome southern California singers, a New Yorker and a Pennsylvanian. We also had a Polish singer, a musicologist who is spending a year at Stanford, and I felt pleased that I could introduce him to an anthropologist who has done some study of Sacred Harp, and a folklorist/performer.

We sang something like 93 songs, with two song lessons in the morning, and one song lessons in the afternoon. (This is another benefit of a small singing — you get to lead more tunes!) We had a couple of new singers, and at least one singer who’s been singing since the 1960s (though I think she started with the Christian Harmony).

Here are some photos of the day:


Above: Jeff leading in the morning. We had a really good bass section today, and you can see many of them in this photo.


Above: Linda, one of my favorite leaders, as seen from the bass section.


Above: Dinner-on-the-grounds outdoors on the patio, in perfect Northern California summer weather. Just out of the frame to the left is little Cecil, who, though not quite three years old, is already learning how to beat time while saying “Fa, fa, fa, fa, fa….”


Above: Chris Thorman, our chaplain, leading a tune. One of the highlights of the day for me were Chris’s prayers: very much in the Sacred harp tradition, they warmed my soul.

Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention

A little before ten this morning, Carol dropped me off at Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Georgia. The church has been engulfed by upscale suburban sprawl — office parks, gated communities, tasteful shopping malls, impeccably maintained four-lane roads — but once you get on the church grounds, you enter into a different cultural landscape. The church, a plain and attractive brick building, is surrounded on two sides by moss-covered gravel parking areas shaded by trees; quite a few cars were already nestled in shady parking spots. Behind the church was a cemetery with quite a few older gravestones, and some gravestones that looked very new.


Above: Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church, Alpharetta, Ga.

Inside, the church was quite plain, as you’d expect in a Primitive Baptist Church: little ornamentation, plain white walls, simple but attractive pews — and no musical instruments. Fifty or so singers were gathered up at the front of the church. I went to sit in the bass section, and noticed that in the hymnal racks on the backs of the pews were hymnals, Bibles, and fans in case it got too hot. I opened up my copy of The Sacred Harp, and got ready to sing.

The singing, the 146th session of the annual Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention, belonged to this other cultural landscape, removed from the gated communities and office parks. It’s music that’s meant to be performed and shared, not consumed; it’s a democratic musical tradition where everyone sings, and anyone can lead a tune if they want to. The singing rose up into that plain white sun-washed church, loud and triumphant. It had that old-time lonesome sound that lets you know that in spite of all the sorrow and troubles we face, God is in heaven and all is right with the world.

Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention

Above: View from the bass section, 146th session of the Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention

A seven year old girl got up to lead “Africa,” an old Isaac Watts hymn — a hymn seems to me to express a Universalist theology of hope and assurance — set to music by William Billings in the late eighteenth century. Between the words to the hymn and that self-possessed girl leading the other singers so well, I got a little choked up and couldn’t sing for a bit, and maybe there were some tears running down my cheeks.

Lunch was served in the time-honored custom of dinner-on-the-grounds. There was a small kitchen building behind the church. Extending from that was a long table, perhaps fifty feet long, built on concrete blocks. Everyone who had brought food to share laid it out on this long table. Over the table was a roof to keep the sun and rain showers off, and between the posts holding up the roof were boards set at a height where you could put your plate while you stood and ate and talked with everyone around you. The woods stood near at hand, and some people from the church instructed us to through any food that was left on our plates out to the varmints in the woods.

Carol had come to the singing by now, and we got our dinners: ham, pulled pork, collard greens, fried okra, perfectly ripe cantaloupe, broccoli casserole, and some of the best layer cake I’ve ever eaten. We stood and ate and talked. I talked with Henry from Alabama, with whom I talked universalist theology. I talked with Nathan, an art historian who’s moving to North Dakota, who specializes in spiritual painters in the southwestern U.S. in the early 20th century. We talked with Shawn and Natalie, who live in Melbourne, Australia, and who sing Sacred harp there. I can’t remember who all we talked with.

The singing was just as good in the afternoon session, in not a little better. During the afternoon break, I got involved in a brief and somewhat technical discussion with a couple of fourth- or fifth- or maybe sixth-generation Sacred Harp singers on the proper tempo for “David’s Lamentation,” a William Billings composition. The piece has become a standard in the repertoire of college choirs, where it is often sung at a slow tempo, and apparently some people have tried leading it slowly at Sacred Harp singings. But the three of us all agreed it should be led at a fast pace, which is both the traditional way to sing it in the South (and not coincidentally, the way Billings clearly preferred it to be sung).

The singing ended. Jeff offered to give me a ride back to the motel. We pulled out of the parking lot, leaving behind a cultural landscape devoted to shared experience, democratic traditions, and matters of the spirit, and re-entered a cultural landscape dominated by consumption and competition.


Crossposted from here.

10th annual Golden Gate All-Day Singing

In brief: 94 tunes, 72 leaders, about 115 registered singers from 8 states and two countries (the United States and the United Kingdom).

But was it a good singing?

The new singing space, Trinity Lutheran Church in Alameda, was wonderful. Now Bay Area Sacred Harp singers can have strong opinions about singing spaces, so there may be negative opinions out there — but I’ll be opinionated, too, and say that negative opinions are wrong. The singing space sounded good: a bright yet warm sound. The grounds of the church are beautiful, so there were lots of nice places to eat dinner outside. The space was big enough to hold all the singers we had today, with room for expansion if we return there next year (last year’s space was just plain overcrowded) — and it was accessible to people with mobility issues. Finally, there was a great kitchen with an industrial quality dishwasher, which made clean-up much easier for those of us on the kitchen committee.

We had a good-sized contingent of singers come down from Washington and Oregon, as well as a good-sized contingent of singers from southern California — visitors are always welcome, but these were especially good voices and especially nice people. We also had lots of fine local singers — regulars from the practice singings in Berkeley, Davis, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz, and lots of other northern California singers.

Carol and I were the kitchen committee, and I’ve decided that this is just about my favorite job at an all-day singing. What’s not to like about being on the kitchen committee? — you get to lay out all this really good food (and scope out what the best dishes are), you get to clean up afterwards, and during peak allergy season I just don’t want to sing for six hours anyway. Miranda, who is 11, joined the kitchen committee to help us set out the food. Linda from Fresno joined Miranda and I after dinner, doing clean-up in the kitchen, and we all had fun. Miranda and I ran the industrial quality dishwasher (with a 90-second cycle!), and we both had a lot of fun, even though we each got a little wet from the high-pressure dish sprayer.

So yes — it was a good singing.