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Reading list

Reading list: Sacred Song in America

I had a committee meeting tonight and could not attend the weekly Berkeley singing. Instead, a short reflection on an essay by Stephen Marini about Sacred Harp singing:

When he was writing Sacred Song in America, Stephen A. Marini spent seven years traveling across the United States finding out about American sacred song traditions. He participated in and listened to many different kinds of sacred singing, and he interviewed notable composers and performers of sacred song. Since he is a historian by trade, of course his book talks about the history of sacred song in the United States. The third chapter in the book, “Sacred Harp Singing,” is devoted entirely to the Sacred Harp singing tradition.

Marini has been singing Sacred Harp since the mid-1970s, and he is a central figure in the New England branch of the Northern revival. He not only has an intimate and first-person knowledge of key moments in the history of the Northern revival, he also knows a fair number of the most influential traditional Southern signers.

In “Sacred Harp Singing,” Marini tells us how Sacred Harp singing is a form of sacred song, although the way in which it is sacred may differ for Northern and Southern singers. He interviewed several prominent traditional Southern singers, and they told him that they explicitly consider Sacred Harp singing to be a form of sacred song. However, many Northern singers don’t talk about Sacred Harp music as being a form of sacred song and, says Marini, “the cultural divide between northern and southern singers could hardly be greater.” Many northern singers do say that they find something implicitly “sacred” in Sacred Harp singing, and some Northerners even talk about it as being sacred song. Yet even then, Northern notions of the sacredness of the music are typically different from, and less unified than, traditional southern notions. We could say that while traditional Southern singers are modernists, Northern revival singers are postmodernists.

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Singing at home

Another path into Sacred Harp singing

I wound up chatting with another newcomer this evening, and as usual I asked how he got interested in Sacred Harp singing. He told me he heard about it through iON, a sort of New-Age-y radio character, who said it has healing properties. (You can listen to what iON says about fasola singing by clicking on the mp3 file on the “Information Farm” blog.) He said, “That may sound a little strange….” “No,” I said, “I’m a minister, I do a lot with the healing properties of music.” Later, I made sure to ask him to come stand in the middle of hollow square when I led a song later that evening. He seemed to enjoy the experience.

It does seem to me that there can be a healing quality to the sound you hear in the middle of the hollow square; perhaps that is the unidentified something that some people find compelling about standing there and leading a lesson. Certainly, healing is mentioned in some of the songs in The Sacred Harp (e.g., 56b Villulia); and healing is definitely a feature of the Christian tradition, which is central to the spirituality of traditional Sacred Harp singing. But in the northern revival singings I have attended, I have rarely heard it articulated explicitly: that Sacred Harp singing might have healing properties.

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Singing at home

The alto section

Some of us had a brief discussion at the Berkeley singing tonight about whether men could sing in the alto section. One person suggested that alto sections are always all women. I thought that there had to be a place for those few men whose strongest voice is their falsetto (i.e., counter-tenors), which places them in the alto section. But did I know of any men who sang with the altos? Yes, I did: Bruce Randall sings in the alto section — you know, that Bruce Randall, the one who has one of his songs in the 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp. But I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with that justification, for Bruce Randall is not a traditional Southern singer.

When I got home, I looked at the relevant section in the Rudiments of Music section of The Sacred Harp, Chapter I, section 5: “The Sacred Harp uses four-part harmony. The parts, in order of increasing pitch, are bass (sung by men), tenor (men and women), alto (usually women)….” So the primary reference source holds out the possibility that men can sing with the alto section, albeit rarely; and presumably there have been some traditional male Southern singers who have sung alto.

This, however, raised another question for me. What about women, like my friend Bette, whose voice gets lower as they get older? In Bette’s case, her voice is now so low that she sings in the bass section of her church choir. We in the northern revival might have the tendency to interpret the Rudiments of Music fairly literally, and lean towards excluding women from the bass section; or we might put the question out on the Fasola email list — appealing to a higher authority, assuming that someone out there with a broader knowledge of the tradition could tell us about a time when a traditional Southern singing included a woman, or women, in the bass section.

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Singing at home

One path into Sacred Harp singing

More newcomers this week. I asked one of these newcomers how he came to find out about Sacred Harp singing. I didn’t get the full story, but apparently he had seen the book somehow, was interested enough the music that he got the book, then got some of his friends to sing through some of the songs. Early on, he found recordings of Sacred Harp songs by Chanticleer; he knew about field recordings but was less interested in them. (Interestingly, he never found the “Rivers of Delight” album by the Word of Mouth Chorus, or the sound track from the movie “Cold Mountain,” two recordings that have inspired other people to seek out the northern revival of Sacred Harp.) Tonight was the first time he had attended a Sacred Harp singing, but he already owned the book, he had already heard recordings, and he had already started to sing the music. At the same time, he didn’t know about singing the shapes, nor was he familiar with the traditions that go with leading a song — two things that for many Sacred Harp singers are defining elements in the tradition.

In short, his path into Sacred Harp singing resembles the paths taken by the first singers in the northern revival: find the book, get a group of friends together to sing the songs, and only then encounter elements of the tradition like singing the shapes and leading styles.

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Singing at home

Newcomers

I counted four, or maybe five, newcomers this evening. We had what was for us a good turnout tonight: six or seven in the bass section, a dozen or more in the tenor section, six or seven trebles, and five altos. As usual, Hal and a couple of other experienced singers made a point of greeting all the newcomers, and giving them a quick explanation of how Sacred Harp singing works.

I am always interested to watch the path of newcomers. How did they find out about Sacred Harp singing? How did they find out about our local singing? What does it feel like to them when they come to an actual singing — does it live up to their expectations, or not? How do we welcome them, and how do we teach them enough so that they can have some fun right from the beginning? And how long do they stick around?

One of the newcomers came to sit in the bass section, and we made sure to tell him that if he sat in the front row, he could listen to more experienced singers sitting behind him, and beside him. Hal was in the front, and checked in to make sure the newcomer knew what was going on.

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Singing at home

Raised sixths, and postmodern rootlessness

The first part of this week’s singing was the monthly “Other Book” singing, a time to sing from the Cooper book, Norumbega Harmony, Eclectic Harmony, etc. In the spirit of openness that has marked the Berkeley singings over the past several weeks, I saw a willingness of all singers to experiment, and of more experienced singers to do a little more teaching for the rest of us.

One subject came up that has been passionately discussed many times by singers of the urban revival. Towards the end of the “Other Book” singing, I asked us to sing Lebanon by William Billings, no. 2 in Norumbega Harmony. I had been playing through it at home, and noticed that if you try to raise the sixth, as is common Sacred Harp practice for songs in a minor key, at one point you get part of a diminished chord. So I was curious as to how we would sing the song. Unfortunately, since we don’t really know the song, we sang a fair number of wrong notes (I know I sang plenty of wrong notes), so I couldn’t be sure: did the experienced singers raise the sixth, or not?

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Singing at home

Openness to experimentation

It was a light turnout tonight, with three trebles, three altos, four or five tenors, and six or seven basses (a few singers changed from one section to another in the course of the evening).

We continued our experiment of having each singer pitch their own song, if they chose to do so, in order to continue to build our skills as singers. Pitching tended to be quite low — although I don’t have a particularly good ear, based on notes I could not sing I’d estimate that one song was pitched a good fifth below notated pitch. Yet in spite of the generally low pitches, there were no negative comments — everyone continued to be very supportive. I was aware that this openness to learning and making mistakes gave me more confidence as a singer. I kept working on the same problems I’ve been working on for the past year — breath support, rhythmic accuracy, and intonation — yet I felt a freedom to focus more than usual on my own problems without worrying about what others thought, and wound up making particularly good progress on breath support.

In keeping with this new sense of experimentation, one of the newer women singers decided to join the bass section. During the break, I mentioned that is was great to have a woman in the section, and asked how it went for her; she said the tenor section, where she had been singing, was just too high for her voice, and this felt better; and I didn’t ask why she chose to join the bass section rather than the alto section. The treble section got shaken up a little, too:– During the break, one of the basses went to sing with the trebles, the first time in a while that a man has sat in that section. And one of the regular altos sat with the trebles; later she said she was able to do so in part because the pitches were so low.

A youngish man wandered into the singing about halfway through, and sat in the tenor section. He was welcomed and coached throughout by a couple of experienced singers. I talked with him briefly after the singing was over, and he said that he lived across the street, had heard the singing, and decided to come over and check it out. But I got the impression that he felt he was in over his head, and I have my doubts as to whether he’ll be back.

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Other local singings

Oldtown, San Diego, local singing

For the convenience of out-of-town singers attending the Jolly Memorial all-day singings, the time of the regular fourth Sunday local singing in San Diego was moved to the morning.

I arrived in the Oldtown neighborhood of San Diego at 9:30, half an hour before the singing was to start. There weren’t yet many tourists, and I wandered around the State Park for a few minutes before heading over the Adobe Chapel at ten of ten. A couple of the San Diego singers were already there, and greeted me cheerfully. Jerry and Carla Schreiber, clearly the central figures of San Diego local singings, showed up soon afterwards.

We waited for a good twenty minutes for someone from the Save Our Heritage Organization (the building’s owner) to come open the chapel for us; Jerry called two or three times to find out when they could send someone over. At last, we decided to start signing outdoors, and had just started singing the notes of Windham when the person with the key arrived an opened up the building.

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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.

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Other local singings

“Norumbega Harmony” monthly singing

I had hoped to attend the open monthly singing of Norumbega Harmony today, but the demands of a professional conference kept me from attending. But I’ll record a few memories from the times I attended this singing in 2009.

Norumbega Harmony is an atypical local singing. The core group of singers meet weekly to sing together in an invitation-only singing, and once a month they host an open singing. They have a “singing master,” Stephen Marini, who founded the group in 1976 (prior to any contact with Southern singers) and continues to be a central force. They perform Sacred Harp music; they are not purely participatory. In addition to singing from the Denson revision of the Sacred Harp, they have long sung other material gleaned from old New England songbooks, and in 2003 finally published their own songbook.

What I noticed most in the three or four times that I came to one of their open singings was how friendly everyone was; it was the most welcoming local singing I have attended. Perhaps because the regular singers see each other every other week of the month, they are much more open to meeting and welcoming newcomers. (Indeed, the second time I attended with my friend Ted, who is an experienced singer with a full bass voice and the ability to sight-sing, we were invited to join the regular weekly group; I can see why Ted was invited, but that I was invited to join shows that it’s a pretty open group.) This was by far the friendliest New England singing I attended; it felt much like the friendliness and openness of the Boston-area folk music scene.