A West Gallery tune, c. 1830, set in 4-shape notes.
My work life has been pretty time-consuming, so I haven’t had much time to sing Sacred Harp in the past few months. (Oh, and there was that other group that Hannah-from-the-altos and I sang with, but that’s a story for another post.) In any case, I’ve been getting my Sacred Harp fix in other ways: singing by myself, giving a presentation on Sacred Harp to a church group, and — watching Sacred Harp videos.
Yep, watching videos. Watching lots of Sacred Harp videos. After all this video-watching, I’ve come to a few conclusions.
(1) The best collection of Sacred Harp videos is not on Youtube — it’s on Vimeo. Go to http://vimeo.com/fasola where you’ll find “Sacred Harp Memories” has uploaded incredible vintage footage dating back to the 1970s.
If you want to show your friends some real Sacred Harp singing, this is what you should be showing them.
(2) The Cork, Ireland Sacred Harp group has uploaded a huge amount of video from their conventions and other singings. The Cork singers have a sweet and flowing style, and I admit to liking a sharper, more rhythmically defined style of singing. Nevertheless, I really appreciate the care that goes into making the videos: excellent audio quality; good mic placement (so all four parts are balanced); camera mounted on a tripod with little or no herky-jerky camera movement; simple but effective editing and titles. I wish everyone who made Sacred Harp videos (including me) produced videos of this high quality.
(3) Having watched videos from many different regions, I’ve determined that there are one or two places where I’ve not yet sung but would really like to sing. The Lookout Mountain Convention, for one. Bremen, Germany, for another, even though I know I’ll never get there.
Then I found a whole cache of videos from the 2013 Kalamazoo, Michigan, singing. Not only was it fun to see some West Coast singers in these videos (Linda, Clarissa, Jeff), and some other people I know or recognize (Will, Bess, several others); not only are there several men wearing ties (including at least one bow tie); but I like the way these people sing — slower than us Bay area singers but with great power, with enthusiasm that bursts through at all the right places. And while the production qualities of these videos are not such that you’d show them to your friends who are asking you about Sacred Harp, they are exactly the kind of videos we Sacred Harp singers want to see — because the camera pans across all the singers, and from several different vantage points, so you can see exactly who was there.
Here’s one of the Kalamazoo singing videos to get you started:
In Berkeley tonight, we sang a number of tunes from the new Cooper book. It is a pleasure to use: the larger page size, and the careful typesetting, make it easy to read and beautiful to look at. I’ll write an in-depth review when I have had time to look through the book more carefully, and read through the tunes that are new to this edition. But my first impression is certainly very positive.
Thanks to the hard work of several singers, there’s a new Bay Area Sacred Harp Web site now online: bayareafasola.wordpress.com.
Nice design, up-to-date information, and it will display very nicely on your smartphone.
Shani, who sings alto with the Berkeley weekly singing, had a nice piece on KALW radio recently, titled: “Sacred Harp: the punk rock of choral music.” The audio file, and a moderately accurate transcription into text, are available on the KALW Web site. In the background of the audio version, you can hear the Berkeley weekly singing, the Golden Gate all-day singing, a singing school led by Cassie Allen, and what sounds like the Denson quartet (or some other vintage Sacred Harp recording).
I’m at a convention far from any Sacred Harp singing, but still I find references to Sacred Harp everywhere. Carol (who is a Pisces) pointed out that the Free Will Astrology Web site is calling on all Pisces to do some loud singing in the week of June 21:
Neurophysiologists say that singing really loudly can flush away metabolic waste from your cerebrum. I say that singing really loudly can help purge your soul of any tendency it might have to ignore its deepest promptings. I bring these ideas to your attention, Pisces, because I believe the current astrological omens are suggesting that you do some really loud singing. Washing the dirt and debris out of your brain will do wonders for your mental hygiene. And your soul could use a boost as it ramps up its wild power to pursue its most important dreams.
Tell all your Pisces friends to come to a Sacred Harp singing this week.
I’ve been down and out with the flu since May 17: even if I had had the energy to go to a singing, I have had no voice. But I have been reading a lot, out of boredom, and I happened to reread Ruth Crawford Seeger’s “Music Preface” for Alan and John Lomax’s Our Singing Country. Seeger, a brilliant composer in her own right, mother of Mike and Peggy Seeger and stepmother of Pete Seeger, spent several years transcribing American folk songs from field recordings. In the process, she became something of an expert in traditional performance practice of American folk singers.
“No one who has studied these or similar recordings [Seeger writes in her “Music Preface”] can deny that the song and its singing are indissolubly connected — that the character of a song depends to a great extent on the manner of its singing.” Therefore, Seeger offers suggestions on how to sing American folk songs. And many of her suggestions sound like the advice we hear on how to sing Sacred Harp tunes. Here are some examples of what I mean:
1. Do not hesitate to sing because you think your voice is “not good” — i.e., has not been “trained.” These songs are better sung in the manner of the natural than the trained (bel canto) voice. Do not try to “smooth out” your voice. If it is reedy or nasal, so much the better….
3. Do not sing “with expression,” or make an effort to dramatize. Maintain a level of more or less the same degree of loudness or softness from beginning to end of the song.
4. Do not slow down at the ends of phrases, stanzas, or songs. Frequent, stereotyped ritardandos are rarely heard in the singing of these songs.
5. Do not heistate to keep time with your foot. Unless otherwise indicated, sing with a fairly strong accent….
15. Do not “sing down” to the songs. Theirs is an old tradition, dignified by hundreds of thousands of singers over long periods of time.
I had read Seeger’s suggestions for singing folk songs long before I began singing Sacred Harp tunes; and because of her suggestions, I persist in thinking of Sacred Harp music from the perspective of traditional American folk musical practice — because Sacred Harp performance practice feels very similar to traditional American folk song performance practice, and it feels quite distinct from performance practices in the classical, jazz, or popular music traditions. And this close similarity in performance practice is why I persist in categorizing Sacred Harp as folk or traditional music, and why I think of those of us who sing Sacred Harp outside of traditional contexts as urban revivalists.
Written 25 May, backdated to 21 May.
I couldn’t be at the local singing this week, so a post on some reading I’ve been doing.
Many — probably most — of today’s Sacred Harp singers, if they consider the matter at all, would assume that by the middle of the nineteenth century, the singing school tradition had died out in New England. But the singing school persisted in the rural areas of northern New England through the nineteenth century. Northern New England in the nineteenth century was a remote, rural region — even a frontier region — in the northern Appalachians, and it had more in common with the rural South than with urban New England. I do not believe they were using shape notes, but nevertheless they were conducting singing schools.
Jennifer C. Post, in her book Music in Rural New England: Family and Community Life, 1870-1940 (Durham, N.H.: University of New Hampshire Press, 2004), reports on a mid-nineteenth century Vermonter who attended singing schools:
Charles Cobb (1835-1903) of Woodstock, Vermont, provided information on his attendance at “singing school” in his mid-nineteenth century diary. He notes that the earliest singing school he went to was in 1845, and in 1850 he was reluctant to go during a period when his voice was changing. He went often with his mother during this period (though he noted that his mother attended on her own as well). In 1854 he wrote about a friend who attended the singing school with him, providing rare details of the event that include references to issue pertaining to economic value, sociability, aesthetic concerns, lyrical content, and performance practice:
“He has bought a singing book & paid 58 cents and is impatient to get his money’s worth. He starched up & went to singing school Jan. 1 — I went also — they bawled some psalm tunes, out of tune, in such a manner that the words could barely be heard only by those who had them before their eyes, and to close off, thing singing master (Oscar Perkins), Harvey Vaughan and Smith the schoolmaster sung some funny songs accompanying on Vaughan’s melodeon. After such a monotonous and universal howling it was a treat to hear some real singing.
I note with interest that some of this sounds quite familiar: after my first singing school I went and bought a singing book and yes I did want to get my money’s worth out of that book; when I go to a convention I “starch up,” that is, put on good clothes; and I’ve been to one or two singings where I’ve heard psalm tunes bawled out of tune so that you couldn’t understand the words (and I’ve been guilty of some bawling myself).
Post goes on to note that in some rural regions in northern New England, the first singing schools were not established until the mid-nineteenth century; in Colebrook, New Hampshire, the first singing school was not established until 1870. This is not so different from the course of events in the South, where singing schools were established through the mid-nineteenth century.
Today, we Sacred Harp singers tend to think of conventions and all-day singings and shaped notes as the defining features of our tradition. But we still call the group that gathers at a convention a “class,” and shape notes are merely a pedagogical tool to help us learn sight singing. I’d argue that the conventions and all-day singings were built on the foundation of the singing school. If we think of ourselves as part of a broader singing school tradition, that might mean we have some interesting musical cousins outside Sacred Harp singing.
The latest issue of The Trumpet, the online publication of new tunes written in the Sacred Harp tradition, contains three tunes by Bay Area singers.
Julian Damashek, who sings in the tenor and bass sections of the Berkeley singing, contributed “God of Might” (p. 18), a version of which he presented at the monthly Other Book singing in Berkeley last fall. It’s a good solid plain tune, fun to sing, and to my ears very much in the tradition of late twentieth and early twenty-first century tunesmiths of the urban revival. I think Julian’s strength in his melodies, and “God of Might” has an affecting folk-like melody.
S. Sandrigon, who sings in the tenor and bass sections of the Berkeley singing (under a different name, which I shall not reveal), contributed “Die No More” (p. 23), for which he wrote both text and tune. According to his blog, S. Sandrigon is “an imaginary American poet and songwriter.” I love his post-modern verse, and other tunes of his I have found great fun to sing, and to listen to. The present text, with the odd metrical scheme of 126.96.36.199., is set to an air adapted from Tchaikovsky, in the unusual key of F# major (a key used by Billings, but not so common among later shape note tunesmiths). A version of this tune can be found on S. Sandrigon’s blog here.
The third Bay Area tune was one of mine, which somehow managed to slip past the editors in spite of its not being as well-crafted as the other tunes in this issue of The Trumpet. I’m slowly reading through the tunes in the rest of the issue. Unfortunately, I won’t get a chance to sing them because I’m going to miss the Trumpet Singing in the Bay Area on June 23 — I’m on the road, driving towards the National Sacred Harp Convention, and then on to a professional conference — I would love to sing Julian’s tune again, and sing S. Sandrigon’s tune, and all the other good tunes.
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.