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.

The chapel is relatively small. There was some confusion as people decided how to set up a hollow square; at last, the pews were pushed back, and the chairs brought by the Schreibers and others were set up in a hollow square. We started singing, and had to push the pews back further and readjust the chairs again to make more of a square. Before the singing, the local singers talked about how wonderful it was to sing in that space, and it was indeed fun to sing in the space. The ceiling and floor is wood, and the walls adobe covered with plaster; the room is perhaps as high as it is wide, and perhaps twice as long as it is wide, with a small choir loft, and a tiny side chapel; the voices of twenty-plus singers filled the room nicely, and the room gave a robust resonant quality to the singing.

There were perhaps twenty of us, half a dozen in each section except the basses where there were only two of us; only four of us were men. Three of us were visitors from the Berkeley local singing, and a few others were visitors from Los Angeles singings. A few more San Diego singers drifted in later on, including one more man.

The local singers talked about how they would lead the songs — go around the hollow square, or popcorn style? It was a brief and good-humored albeit chaotic discussion, loosely guided by Jerry and Carla (at one point, Carla humorously made a motion and asked for a second, though no real vote was taken). Finally, the locals decided to go around the hollow square, though after just two people had led songs it changed to popcorn style.

The hollow square was pretty small. Most of those who led lessons just sat in their seats, and did not stand up to lead their lesson. This led to some confusion, as not everyone could see the person who was leading. Another brief and good-humored but chaotic discussion, and it was agreed that everyone would try to help beat time so all could see. A few people did stand in the center to lead, and it really was easier to follow along when someone did so; but the San Diegans seem to value their informality, and most people stayed in their seats to lead.

Everyone was white. I learned from conversations after the singing that there was some real economic diversity. At least one of the singers was a native Alabaman who had sung some Sacred Harp as a child; there were a couple of native Californians (though they did not grow up in San Diego); the other people I talked with had come to San Diego from other parts of the U.S.

The singing was quite strong, with at least one strong singer in each section. I did not hear much in the way of vocal ornamentation. A couple of the singers might have had some formal vocal training, although they sang with a full-throated sound appropriate to Sacred Harp music. I heard a couple of singers who sang with what I would describe as a standard sort of folk revival sound; I learned later that at least one of them has done a lot of recreational folk singing. One voice was quite powerful, though I had a hard time identifying the vocal style; I learned later that this singer has sung with rock bands and in other similar settings.