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All-day singings & conventions

19th Annual Sacred Harp Singing Convention, Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon

The Portland convention opened this year with a sort of singing school. Tom Malone of Molloy College taught us about appropriate emphasis for different time signatures. He was an engaging speaker, and seemed very knowledgable. His presentation reminded me of countless such presentations in the urban folk revival, where an expert tells us urbanites how to properly perform music that comes from a cultural and geographic location far from where we are sitting. Tom Malone told us how Elmer Kitchens was a Primitive Baptist preacher who knew his Bible and knew how to properly emphasize the poetry of the songs he wrote. Most of us urban revivalists never feel quite secure in our knowledge of proper performance techniques, and we depend on such lectures and workshops to keep us properly in the tradition.

I noticed that when the singing started, immediately after the singing school, everyone sang rather sweetly, as if singing in a choir. But after an hour had gone by, the singing had gotten free and even wild. It’s good to know the tradition, but knowledge alone isn’t enough; if the Spirit isn’t moving the singers, the singing falls flat.

At lunch time, I ate with the chair of the convention. It turned out that we are both church-goers, and our conversation drifted away from Sacred Harp to some extent. We both agreed that we dislike praise bands in church. She made a good point about projecting the words to hymns on a screen in front of the worship space: those projected words give you no information about tune or rhythm, and just a little bit of knowledge about reading music can make it so much easier to sing. “If I were going to church tomorrow, and I can’t because I’ll have to be here, I’d go late,” she said. “So you could miss the praise band and the praise songs,” I said, and we both laughed.

We talked about how white the singers were at the Portland convention; she was one of the few people of color in the room. “I don’t understand why it’s so white here,” I said. “Well, I come from the Black church tradition, and we didn’t have any of these [pointing to her Sacred Harp book] at my church,” she said. “But neither did we!” I said. “I remember some Lowell Mason tunes, and of course we had Coronation — I think everyone had Coronation — but nothing else from The Sacred Harp.”

We didn’t come to any conclusions, but both of us like the music very much. “I tell everyone about it, because I think everyone should sing it,” she said.

Categories
All-day singings & conventions

Jolly Memorial all-day singing

The Jolly Memorial All-day Singing is held in a building in Old Poway Park in Poway, California, and sponsored by San Diego area Sacred Harp singers. There were more than 40 singers who came at some time during the day, but the most I counted at any one time was 36. I was told that it was a lighter turnout than usual. There were three of us down from the San Francisco Bay area, and several from Los Angeles, but I believe all those who came were from California. At the end of the day, the secretary of the singing told us that 28 people led a total of 70 songs; most of those who led songs led three songs.

Although there wasn’t a large number of people, the singing was loud, accurate, and joyful. It seemed to me that a few strong voices pretty much carried each section, with the rest of us filling out the sound. The resonance of the space also helped; with a wood floor and ceiling, the sound was mellow and lively.

As with any singing, there were some minor local peculiarities. The singing did not open with “Holy Manna,” nor did it close with “Parting Hand” (the closing song was “Christian’s Farewell,” which I have heard used to close local singing sessions). One person pitched all the songs (with the exception of two or three people who pitched their own songs), and occasionally she used a tuning fork as she was deciding what pitch to give. No collection was taken, since there was no charge for using the building — typically the biggest single cost for an all-day singing — and the chairman of the singing paid for whatever other minor incidental expenses arose. There were two business sessions, one at the beginning of the day to formally elect the officers (who were already carrying out their duties), and one at the end of the day for resolutions, etc.

Categories
All-day singings & conventions

10th annual Pioneer Valley All-Day Singing

The 10th annual Pioneer Valley All-Day Singing took place today in the parish hall of the First Congregational Church of Sunderland, Massachusetts. This singing was sponsored by the Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Community. The Western Mass. Sacred Harp community has the reputation of tending to be a youngish and hip crowd, with vigorous and energetic singers; and they have the reputation of having good turnouts at their singings. I saw evidence of all these things at this year’s Pioneer Valley All-Day Singing.

The average age appeared to be fairly young, with a good selection of tattoos and piercings; and dinner on the grounds featured a good selection of vegan dishes. All this was in keeping with the hip culture of central Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. The singing was indeed vigorous and energetic, and many of the songs were taken at quite a brisk tempo. It will be interesting to see the minutes when they are published, to see just how many songs we got through in the day; it felt as if there were a few more than average. The singers filled the room; the bass section had only one or two empty chairs during most of the day; the altos expanded back into the section of the room where the food was; the tenor section was well-filled; the treble section was perhaps the least full.

I had forgotten how stand-offish New Englanders can be; the only person who talked to me at length was Swiss-German, not a New Englander at all; a few other people noticed that my name tag said I was from California, commented on that, and then ended the conversation. The Western Mass. folks have the reputation of being very welcoming, but that must be in comparison to the general New England culture — but then, I attended one monthly singing in New England for 8 straight months and no one ever initiated a conversation with me, so by comparison the Western Mass. folks were positively chatty. On the other hand, compared to the Minnesota singing I attended last week, Western Mass. was less chatty.