Singing at home


The conversation was something about the nature of Sacred Harp, and the fact that we happened to be singing in a church building. But, said one person, this isn’t religion for us.

There are others in our Sacred Harp group for whom the religious content is quite important. But I think for most people who sing with us — as for most people who sing in the northern urban revival — this isn’t about religion.

Irving Lowens says somewhere that the 18th century New England singing schools were a form of popular music; they were entertainment more than religion. Maybe we have returned to that; in this minor way, perhaps the urban revival is truer to the 18th century roots of the singing school than is traditional Southern Sacred Harp singing.

Singing at home


A new singer — I think tonight was his second time singing — stood up to lead “Sherburne.” The class responded to his solid beat, and really sang out. I was sitting next to Lucas in the back bench of the bass section, and I murmured to him, “Rock on!”

“It sounded like Queen!” he said.

It took me a minute to realize he was referring to the 1970s glam rock band. “You’re right, those chord progressions, yeah,” I murmured back. “Now all we need is Freddy Mercury in the trebles.”

He grinned and nodded. He was about to add something, but the next person stood up to lead a lesson and we turned our attention back to the class.

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.