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Singing school this fall in the Bay area

There will be a Bay area singing school this fall, on three Sundays — Sept. 11, 25, and Oct. 9 — from 1-2 p.m., followed immediately by the regular Peninsula/South Bay twice-monthly singing. I’ve put an announcement up on this Web site here — and there’s a PDF of the flyer available here.

Please tell all your friends and relations and co-workers to join us at this singing school!

And if you’re an experienced singer, please come if you possibly can and support the singing school. I’ll even provide lunch as an added inducement for you to come (just give me a week’s notice).

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On the road back from Alabama

We’re driving back from Alabama, and stopped at Nashville on the way. Of course we had to go down to Broadway and 2nd Ave. to walk past the honky-tonk places to check out the music. It all seemed so commercial after the National Sacred Harp Convention — it sounded very polished (mostly), pretty slick, and so rehearsed it was just a bit boring. We stopped outside a few places to listen, but always walked on before going in. In the honky tonk places, you’re mostly meant to sit and consume the music passively while drink your beer.

Then we passed two fellows playing fiddle and guitar on the sidewalk. They were playing an old-timey fiddle tune, with no amplification. It was the kind of music that you’re meant to dance to, or sit there and talk with the musicians in between tunes.

We stood there and talked to the musicians between the tunes. On the right with the fiddle is Jason a.k.a. Blind Watermelon McCoy, and on the left with the guitar is Truett Rayborn. Much more fun than sitting and passively listening. (Good dance music, too — I tried to get Carol to dance with me, but she wouldn’t.)

This may sound pretty far from Sacred Harp singing, but I don’t think it is. Sacred Harp singing is participatory, it hasn’t been prettied up to sell records, it simply exists to provide pleasure and meaning to life. Just like old-timey fiddle tunes played on a street corner by musicians who like to talk with you while you listen.

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Gig

Susan from the altos and Shelby from the trebles have been singing with the Kitka Vocal Ensemble’s Community Chorus. The Kitka Community Chorus was about to do its first gig, performing Balkan a capella music, but they didn’t have quite enough music for a full concert. So Susan and Shelby said the Berkeley Sacred Harp singers would fill out the evening with some participatory singing.

My sweetheart Carol and I watched as people came in to the upstairs room at the Finnish Brotherhood Hall on Chestnut Street in Berkeley. The Kitka Community Chorus was about eighteen women, and they brought family and friends. About ten of us Sacred Harp signers showed up, and I noticed with relief there there were going to be at least two of us on a part. By the time the Kitka Community Chorus started singing, the room was full.

“These women are good!” I thought to myself. Great intonation and dynamics, solid group discipline, and all the singers had great individual voices. They blended well together, and created a nice rich sound. Sure, I could kvetch that the Georgian song they did didn’t sound like it used exactly that weirdo scale the Georgians use, but the chorus still sounded fantastic.

When it was our turn to sing, Susan and her husband David gave a nice brief intro to the tradition, informed the audience that this was a participatory tradition rather than a performance tradition, and formed us up into a hollow square to make that point stronger. We sang 38b Windham, then Susan invited anyone who wanted to come up and sing with us, or just stand in the middle of the hollow square and soak up the sound. Carol, who stayed in the back of the hall said that when Susan said that people could come up and sing along, two teenaged girls sitting near her said “Yes!” quietly to each other. Lots of people came up to sing with us, and half a dozen stood in the middle of the hollow square.

Susan stopped us after five or so songs, which was about right. Left to our own devices, we would have sung the rest of the evening, and annoyed everyone who wanted to get at the refreshments, and tell the Kitka Community Chorus members how great they were.

Carol and I were standing around talking with David, who told us about the old-time Sacred Harp singer who said, “I’d travel five hundred miles to sing Sacred Harp, but I wouldn’t walk across the street to listen to it.” Carol and I laughed; that about summed it up. Or, to be more polite about the same point:–Earlier in the evening, David and Carl and I had been talking about how it’s impossible to commodify Sacred Harp singing — if you commodify it, I insisted, then it isn’t Sacred Harp music, and that’s why I sing it, because you can’t commodify it.

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Outdoors

It was kind of a strange place to be singing. Alemany Farm nestles on the side of a hill right next to the freeway, a small urban farm serving to educate San Franciscans about food security issues. It was a regular work day for volunteers today, but SF Refresh was also presenting some workshops on whole body care (and composting; I wasn’t quite sure where the composting workshop came in). We were asked to give a workshop on Sacred Harp, the thought being that the music is a kind of healing music.

I got lost and arrived late. There were eight of us regular singers from the San Francisco and Berkeley singings. In the forty minutes I was there, another five or six people came and joined in: one person wearing a t-shirt that I thought was from Alemany Farm, one person whom I later learned sang opera, a man from New Zealand and a woman who appeared to be his sweetheart, a woman wearing a snappy fedora, and maybe one other that I’m forgetting. I thought it would be far more difficult to hear each other, especially with the wind, but we were on a small stone patio, and of course we were loud, so it wasn’t so bad — though when we were done, i realized I had pushed my voice more than I had realized.

It was different, singing at an urban farm. I’m not sure we accomplished much in the way of healing or whole body care, but half a dozen people had fun singing with us, and some of the volunteer farm workers who walked by seemed to enjoy listening to us. I would have to say it was one of the more unusual venues — standing in the middle of an urban farm — in which I’ve sung.

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“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.