Singing at home

Warning: theological humor

For many of us who work in the religion business, Rob Bell is very much in our awareness these days — Bell is the evangelical pastor who has been accused of believing in universal salvation. As someone who’s a Universalist, and who’s not an evangelical, I’ve been staying out of this debate. But I was very tempted tonight to lead Greenwich, and dedicate it to Rob Bell:

But, oh, their end, their dreadful end,
Thy sanctuary taught me so,
On slipp’ry rocks I see them stand,
And fiery billows roll below.

However, this would have been in bad taste, and besides probably no one would have known who Rob Bell is.

Singing at home

Singing from The Trumpet

Will Fitzgerald, one of the editors of The Trumpet, the new online publication of new Sacred Harp compositions, was in San Francisco and arranged to have a singing of the first issue of The Trumpet at the Church of the Sojourners. We had a good turn out: four basses, four altos, three trebles, and eight or so tenors (a couple of whom helped out us basses when we got stuck).

We sang through all 14 songs, and I feel we gave most of them a reasonably good hearing, although our intonation wasn’t up to the usual standards of Bay Area singers. I appreciated the fact that the singers were willing to go back and work on a tricky bit now and again — more difficult compositions deserve that attention.

All the music was good, but I especially enjoyed the following:—

  • Buckley by Steve Helwig — a new setting of John Newton’s “Bartimeus,” Book 1, no. XCV in Olney Hymns — had a nice sound and was fun to sing; it was good enough that I wanted more verses, and a repeat on the final ten measures
  • Cedar Street by Charles Wells; the interaction between the tenor and bass parts in the sixth and seventh measures were a little challenging, but fun to sing
  • Girard by Gerald Hoffman had a very good “Sacred-Harp-y” sound to it

Some of the music was quite challenging: Lincoln Street by Dan Hertzler included a raised fourth degree of the scale in the bass part which, though it sounded good when we could actually hit that note, was difficult to sing. And The Trumpet was not limited to the pure Denson book sound; some of the music leaned more towards the gospel sound of the Cooper book, such as the fuguing section of Lincoln Street.

But the best song we sang all evening was not in The Trumpet; it was “Leave the Ground” by James, one of the regular singers at the Berkeley weekly singing. James wrote both the words and the music; both words and music were recognizably related to the Sacred Harp idiom, but stretched the idiom in new and delightful ways. I’ll quote just one verse to give you an idea of what I mean:

Now we must all shake hands and go home,
It’s over and done.
Cherubic cars are waiting,
We must drive till morning light,
Cherubic cars are waiting,
We’ll be all right.

The music made wonderful use of repeated unisons. I hope James publishes this somewhere; for lovely though it is, it’s far enough outside the conventions of the Sacred Harp idiom that I doubt The Trumpet will print it. Update: Of course “Leave the Ground” is published on the Web, with sheet music, full text, and funky version with electric guitar accompaniment.

Singing at home

Who sings Sacred Harp?

I had a conversation with Hannah, one of our altos, who has been singing in a grindcore band up until recently, and now gets her music fix from Sacred Harp. We talked about how different people get drawn to the urban revival of Sacred Harp singing. There are the punk rockers. There are the people who love Renaissance and medieval music. There are the old folkies. There are even avant-garde sound artists. Of course there are the church musicians and the people who just like to sing in church. And there are the people who just like Sacred Harp for no particular reason.

We have all these types of people in the Berkeley weekly singing. Some of us fit into more than one category — I first ran into Sacred Harp while attending a folk festival looking for new music to sing with my church choir, so I fit into the church and folk categories. But I’ve also flirted with early music, and I was a punk rocker at one point in my life. It’s fun asking new people when they show up at a Sacred Harp singing — so, what brought you here?

Other local singings

San Francisco singing

I managed to make it to the new monthly singing in San Francisco this afternoon. The church that’s letting us sing (for free!) asked if we could participate in a short ceremony for peace in the neighborhood in the wake of a recent shooting a short distance from the church which resulted in the death of Parrish Broughton.

I didn’t get out of my church as quickly as I had hoped, so I arrived just after the Sacred Harp singers has sung Hallelujah. The indoor part of the ceremony was finished, and I got there just in time to join a processional down the street to where the shooting took place. This being an Episcopalian church, they knew how to do ritual — good vestments, really good incense, talking just enough but not too much — I felt honored to be a part of what they were doing.

We sang again when we got to the site of the shooting. A member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence did a nice ritual of creating a peaceful piece of spray-painted graffiti art on the pavement where the shooting took place. Someone from the neighborhood had brought some holy water, and asked the rector to sprinkle it, which he did, with a nice prayer. Then, somewhat to our surprise, we were asked to sing again. “Um, how about New Britain?” — upon seeing blank looks from the non-singers, “That’s what we call Amazing Grace.” We sang it. Everyone sang along. And the ceremony was done.

Back up at the church, we settled in to the hollow square. There were perhaps 25 singers at the peak of the afternoon, and the singing was really excellent; one of the best local singings I’ve ever attended.