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Sacred Harp class at Stanford

Stanford professor Heather Hadlock invited some Sacred Harp singers to teach one of her classes about Sacred Harp singing. Heather has come to sing with us, and so already had first-hand experience of Sacred Harp singing.

Marcia Genensky, of Anonymous 4 fame, was our leader. She gave a brief but fascinating introduction to Sacred Harp singing, and its place in American musical history. Then we all sang for most of the class. We had at least one experienced singer on each part, so the students would have a sense of the way the tradition works.

I think the students enjoyed this event. I do wonder what they actually learned from us. I hope they learned something about the living history of American music. Maybe they learned that perfect pitch doesn’t apply to all forms of music. Maybe they learned about yet another alternative solfege system. Maybe they learned that all music isn’t about performance.

It would be interesting to ask some of them in a few years if they even remember those loud, raucous Sacred Harp singers who came to their class….

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Palo Alto World Music Day

A photo from today’s singing at Palo Alto World Music Day, downloaded from the event website — Thomson is leading:

The sound was pretty darn good under that overhang.

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Sacred Harp and Bach

The San Francisco Bach Choir invited Bay Area Sacred Harp singers to give a workshop at their choral festival, which was intriguingly titled “Many Voices, One Art.”

We had a pretty good turnout at our workshops. It’s very hard to adequately present the Sacred Harp tradition in a one hour workshop — as we’ve learned every yer at the San Francisco Free Folk Festival. Even for singers who are used to sight singing, it’s a lot to take in because it’s significantly different from other singing traditions: we’re not a performance tradition, we don’t rehearse, we don’t use absolute pitch, you have to be OK with microtonalities and improvised ornamentation.

I don’t think we’ll get any new singers from giving this workshop. But we had fun, and most of the participants had fun.

And personally I enjoyed going to the other workshops.

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Palo Alto World Music Day

We had a good turn out for the singing at Palo Alto World Music Day. Location was good too, in a sort of pedestrian walkway with a roof overhead.

Since this was sort of a performance, we had a set list for the first six songs — we wanted to do songs that we knew we’d sound good on: 178, Dan; 99, Peter; 40, Leigh; 47b, Mark; 236, Paul; 193, Terry.

After that it was open call. This worked pretty well.

We didn’t have huge audiences, but a few people listened to us for extended periods of time, and a couple even joined us. We had a great time, needless to say.

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Singing at a peace walk

Palo Alto hosted a peace walk today, in commemoration of the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This was going to be taking place during our regular local singing, and the walk route was right past the church. So we decided to sing for the walkers. We even got a mention in the local online news rag.

Not sure the walkers understood the connection between Sacred Harp and peace. From my point of view, any participatory communal music-making is going to help build peace. Nevertheless, I hope we entertained them. And one or two of the walkers actually came and sang with us for a while.

Aside from that it was a good, albeit small, singing. (Thank goodness Susan and David came over from the East Bay to help fill out our numbers.) It was definitely interesting to sing under a tent next to some redwood trees.

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Sacred Harp at the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival

A telegraphic account based on my notes:

Twenty singers showed up to perform at the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival. I know, I know, Sacred Harp singing isn’t a performance tradition, but once in a while we’re asked to perform, and this was one of those occasions.

Due to some behind-the-scene complications (having to do with other performances at this concert), there was no warm-up room available for us. But Sacred Harp singers can sing anywhere, so we warmed up by singing a dozen or so songs in the lobby of the concert hall, much to the delight of several early-arriving concert-goers.

We tried to make this performance as much like a singing as possible. Susan Fetcho arranged us in a modified hollow square: trebles in a line stage right, altos in a line stage left, with basses and tenors forming a line facing the audience — something like this:

Sacred Harp singers on stage

The “X” marks where the leaders stood, with their backs to the audience. This arrangement allowed us singers to hear each other, allowed the leaders to bring in the parts if they chose to do so, and projected the singing out towards the audience.

We had an “arranging committee” who called out the names of the leaders, just as at a convention. I even took minutes, which follow:


This special singing was held at the Music Recital Hall, University of California at Santa Cruz. The business meeting was held prior to the singing, and the following officers were elected or appointed to serve: Shelley Phillips and Janet Herman, co-chairpersons; Janet Herman, treasurer; Dan Harper, secretary.
Leaders: Ed Rice 178; Susan Fetcho 142; Terry Moore 86; David Fetcho 344; Shelly Phillips 183; Janet Herman 228.
The secretary recorded 20 singers present, from the Berkeley, Palo Alto, and Santa Cruz local singings. The treasurer reported that the $400 honorarium will be devoted to buying new loaner books.
Co-chairpersons: Shelley Phillips and Janet Herman–Secretary: Dan Harper


To remain true to our tradition, we did NOT take a bow when we finished singing — we just walked off stage. This felt to me like the applause was directed at the tradition, not at the singers who happened to be there passing on the tradition at this particular singing.

The response from people in the audience was positive. From comments I heard, audience members especially liked the fuguing tunes. Two or three people came up to us after the concert and wanted to know how they could join in singing with us — this, I feel, made up for the awkwardness of singing Sacred Harp in a concert setting!

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Info about the upcoming SC Baroque Festival

(Check the Bay Area email lists to find out date and time, and contact info for Shelley, Janet, or Dan. This info is posted here as an online reference.)

Concert organizer says leave your valuables in the car.

We’ll have a room where we can sing a few tunes and get warmed up — time on stage starting at about 6:15 to get organized — then back to the warm-up room and sing some more before the concert. Yes, we’ll have loaner books in case your forget yours.

We will sing the following, in this order, with these leaders:
Africa, 178 — leader Ed Rice
Stratfield, 142 — leader Susan Fetcho
Poland, 86 — leader Terry Moore
Rainbow, 344 — leader David Fetcho
Greenwich, 183 — leader Shelley Phillips
Marlorough, 228 — leader Janet Herman

Shelley will key all tunes for us, for consistency.

If you have clothing that approximates clothing at typical Southern singings, great. If you don’t, wear what you have — just keep the focus on the singing and the tradition, rather than the clothing.

We go on after Hank Bradley, an old-time fiddler (whom Janet says is really good).

Finally — yeah — this is all kinda weird and different from our usual practice. If you’ve come to the practice singings where we ran through the tunes, you heard the discussions about how this can only be an approximation of a “real” singing. But what the heck — we’re getting $400 for doing this concert, which will go towards buying much-needed loaner books for both Denson and Shenandoah Harmony (the money will go through Community Music School in Santa Cruz, a 501(c)3 nonprofit). Besides, we plan to do some “real” singing before the concert — we’ll have that warm-up room, why waste the opportunity?

And if you want to join us at the last minute, feel free, just let Dan or Janet or Shelley know you’re coming!

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SF Free Folk Festival

Google Maps told me it was going to take 34 minutes to get to the site of the San Francisco Free Folk Festival. I should have known better; with the heavy traffic on 19th St., it took me an hour. And when the dust finally settled, I didn’t walk into the Sacred Harp workshop until fifteen minutes before it was supposed to end.

But from what I heard of it, it was a good class and a good singing. There were experienced singers in every part, which helped a lot: Terry and Kate in the trebles; Gary, Linda, and Jennie in the tenors; Peter and Ned in the basses; and Mary in the altos (if I’ve forgotten anyone, forgive me, and leave a note in the comments). In addition to the experienced singers, there were six or eight trebles, maybe eight tenors, half a dozen basses, and half a dozen altos. Now let’s hope that some of those new singers — many of whom sounded pretty good! — come join us for local singings and all-day singings.

Then when the Sacred Harp workshop was over, I had to hop in my car and drive to Hayward for a friend’s ordination, so I didn’t even get to enjoy anything else at the festival.

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Singing with Coleman Barks

Shelley Phillips and Barry Phillips provided the music to accompany Coleman Barks as he read from his translations of Rumi last night at the First Congregational Church of Santa Cruz. Barks grew up in the south and loves shape note singing, so Shelley asked local Sacred Harp singers if they’d come and sing two tunes.

It’s a long way from San Mateo to Santa Cruz, and Carol and I got to the church about ten minutes before the reading was to begin. All the church’s parking spaces were full, and the school parking lot next door was full, too. We parked on the street.

As soon as I walked into the church, someone spotted the maroon oblong Sacred Harp book in my hand, and sent me to sit in one of the front three rows. I recognized Janet and one or two other singers, but no one else — it’s a long drive, and Santa Cruz singers don’t get up to the Bay Area to sing much.

Coleman Barks began reading. I could hear the cadences of Southern preaching in his voice. Shelley and Barry played — Shaker tunes, Sacred Harp tunes, Bach — as he read. People who study liturgy talk about the continuum from ordinary speech through heightened speech, singing, and finally wordless music. As Southern preachers often do, Barks moved along this continuum from ordinary speech to heightened speech; Shelley and Barry Phillips moved along the other end of the continuum, singing and music.

We Sacred Harp singers sang right after the intermission. Sacred Harp singing moves between heightened speech and singing, so we occupied the middle ground of that continuum from ordinary speech to music. Shelley led us in no. 178 Africa; Barks read one of his poems that mentions Sacred Harp singing, then we sang no. 59 Holy Manna (vv. 1, 3, 5). Barks came to sing with us on Holy Manna, standing in the bass section a couple of people to my left.

I think that was about the deadest place I’ve ever sung Sacred Harp in: I could hear a little of what the tenors were singing, and I could hear the bass I was standing next to, and I could hear Shelley, who was standing facing us; and that’s about all I could hear. So it wasn’t the ecstatic experience Sacred Harp singing can be when you can hear and respond to all the other singers; but it was probably a more musical experience for those who weren’t singing. When you’re singing for an audience, I think Sacred Harp tends to morph from an ecstatic form of heightened speech into musical singing — which, honestly, is a kindness to the audience; ecstasy doesn’t sound so good when you’re not singing along with it. Carol was siting out out in the audience, and she said we sounded fine.

Then Barks continued reading his translations of Rumi: poems of ecstatic and transcendent encounters with the divine; poems about mystic experiences, experiences which cannot be adequately communicated to an audience.

Cross-posted here.

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Easter eggs and Sacred Harp

Once again this year, Chris Thorman and Carolyn Deacy invited Sacred Harp singers to Carolyn’s house to make traditional Ukranian Easter eggs. The process uses multiple dye baths, and masking the design out by heating beeswax. Here’s Scott putting a wax resist onto an egg that has already been dyed light blue:


My partner Carol took the photo above, and the next photo showing our completed eggs (the egg shown in the first photograph is the lowest egg on the lefthand plate):


We sang a few tunes Sacred Harp tunes while we were waiting for the final coat of varnish to dry, and in true Sacred Harp style we did share a potluck dinner. Thank you to Carolyn for hosting us, and to Chris for providing materials, tools, and patient teaching!