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Other events

On the road back from Alabama

We’re driving back from Alabama, and stopped at Nashville on the way. Of course we had to go down to Broadway and 2nd Ave. to walk past the honky-tonk places to check out the music. It all seemed so commercial after the National Sacred Harp Convention — it sounded very polished (mostly), pretty slick, and so rehearsed it was just a bit boring. We stopped outside a few places to listen, but always walked on before going in. In the honky tonk places, you’re mostly meant to sit and consume the music passively while drink your beer.

Then we passed two fellows playing fiddle and guitar on the sidewalk. They were playing an old-timey fiddle tune, with no amplification. It was the kind of music that you’re meant to dance to, or sit there and talk with the musicians in between tunes.

We stood there and talked to the musicians between the tunes. On the right with the fiddle is Jason a.k.a. Blind Watermelon McCoy, and on the left with the guitar is Truett Rayborn. Much more fun than sitting and passively listening. (Good dance music, too — I tried to get Carol to dance with me, but she wouldn’t.)

This may sound pretty far from Sacred Harp singing, but I don’t think it is. Sacred Harp singing is participatory, it hasn’t been prettied up to sell records, it simply exists to provide pleasure and meaning to life. Just like old-timey fiddle tunes played on a street corner by musicians who like to talk with you while you listen.

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All-day singings & conventions

Macedonia Church Singing, Macedonia, Alabama

We had to drive up from Birmingham, so I arrived about half an hour late to the annual singing at the Macedonia Church in Macedonia, Alabama. Carol dropped me off, and drove off to walk through Cathedral Caverns while I was singing.

From the moment I walked in the door, it was obvious that these people had sung together for a long time — generations, really. You can tell when a group of singers knows each other well; there’s a unity of purpose that comes with long acquaintanceship, and that can only come with lots of time spent singing together.

I wanted to sit in the back of the bass section and mostly listen, but there were only five other basses, so there wasn’t a place for me to hide; I had to sing, though compared to them I was rhythmically sloppy. And they sang faster than I was used to, so I missed some eighth notes here and there. But perhaps that’s the best way to listen: sit in your section, try to keep up with the people next to you, keep your voice down, and listen to how the other sections interact with yours.

As people were called up to lead a lesson (most leaders did two songs in a lesson), I began to realize that there were an awful lot of Iveys and Woottens in this singing. Or to put it another way, I was singing with Sacred Harp aristocracy, so I hoped to sit in the back bench of the tenors and not lead a song; I don’t much like to lead in any case.

But after the morning recess, the basses got me to sit on the front bench for a while, and when the chair asked me to lead a lesson, I said I guessed I would. Not that I led the lesson; the front bench of the tenors led the lesson. The second tune I led took off at such a fast clip that I just waved my hand up and down, and hung on for dear life until the end.

At lunch, I wound up sitting and talking with one of the basses. I said I was surprised that there were so few basses; only about half a dozen of us, when there were a good forty or fifty tenors. (There were perhaps seven altos, and maybe eight trebles.) He said it was a little surprising, and hadn’t always been that way. Then we got to talking about universalism — turns out he’s in the universalist camp, theologically speaking, and is a little disappointed in Rob Bell for not quite going all the way — and that conversation consumed us for the rest of lunch.

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All-day singings & conventions

National Sacred Harp Convention, pt. 2

It seemed to me that there were more younger people on the last day of the National Sacred Harp Convention; today was not quite the sea of gray heads that I saw yesterday. Not that there’s anything wrong with gray hair; that’s now officially my hair color on my driver’s license. But I like it best when there’s a more even distribution of ages.

After the first break, two girls in their early teens stood up together to lead the class. The tenor front bench reminded them to announce the number of the tune they were leading, and once they got the pitch, they started right in. When they had finished, I heard someone from the tenor front bench, and someone else from further back in the tenors, say the same thing in approving voices: Good job.” The girls smiled as they walked out of the hollow square.

Then a middle-aged woman from the altos was called, and she brought an older teenaged girl with her into the hollow square. The girl stood where I couldn’t see her, so I don’t know how well she led, but I do know that she was smiling pretty broadly when the tune was over.

A little later on, a young man, perhaps in his early twenties, was called into the hollow square and invited an older woman to stand there and lead with him. He obviously knew what he was doing. And there you have something of a progression of ages: two young teens who need each other’s support, and an older teenager who didn’t mind having an adult nearby when leading; and then the young adult who is more competent than some of us older adults.

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All-day singings & conventions

National Sacred Harp Convention

According to today’s The Birmingham News:

About 200 people attended the first day of the 32nd annual National Sacred Harp Singing Convention on Thursday at First Christian Church on Valleydale Road, keeping alive a tradition that dates back centuries. …

Sacred harp [sic] never died out in Alabama and has experienced a world-wide renaissance. A group of five people from the United Kingdom sang Thursday in the convention. [p. 6B]

Early on, one of the elders of the convention (I didn’t catch his name) stood up to lead a lesson, and prefaced it by saying that things had gotten a little out of synch yesterday. He suggested, earnestly and forthrightly, that the class should look at the leader as much as they look at their books. He also mentioned something about someone who led two songs in a row yesterday. Apparently by missing the first day of the convention, I missed a certain amount of turmoil.

At lunch time, I wound up sitting at a table with two of those people from the U.K., along with a woman from Ireland, a man from Chattanooga, a woman from Massachusetts, a man from Knoxville, and Leland who sings with the Berkeley local singing in the summer. The Irishwoman, the Chattanoogan, and the two people from Yorkshire had all attended Camp Fasola earlier in the week, and had been at the convention yesterday.

“It sounds much better today,” said one of the campers. “Yes, there were problems with the front bench yesterday,” said another, adding that the people on the front bench were not together. Then there was cheerful talk of checking one’s ego at the door, and comments about how one person on the front bench still wasn’t quite in synch. “You’ve got to watch the leader,” said one, “after all, in a class this big, they’re the only ones most people can see.”

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Reading list

Bay Area singers in The Trumpet

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 5.5.6.9., 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.

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Singing at home

Sounding different

We had some new singers and some visiting singers with us tonight. The sound of the class was quite a bit different. I’m used to a bass section that sounds booming, a tenor section that sounds a little nasal, an alto section with what Stephen Marini has called a “laser-like chest tone,” and a treble section that rides up above the rest of the parts. But tonight the basses sounded nasal, the tenors sounded like they were trying to ride up above the other parts, and the altos sounded booming. Only the trebles sounded like they usually sound. It was disconcerting. This is the problem with local singings in the urban revival — they are small enough, and with an even smaller number of confident singers, that a few new voices can radically alter the sound of the whole class. This is less of a problem with an all-day singing or a convention, where you often find a big enough core of regular singers that they can out-sing the visitors.

In my years on the fringes of the folk music scene, I was firmly indoctrinated with the notion that when you are a new or visiting musician, you hang back and listen to how the locals do it before you let loose — and even then, you don’t let loose until you’ve been around a while. Folk music is rooted in specific places, and that’s a big part of its beauty: so mountain dulcimer players in Galax, Virginia, sound completely different from players a hundred miles away in Tennessee; and the way you play for contra dances in New England doesn’t sound a thing like Texas square dance bands.

But one of the things I’ve noticed in the urban revival of Sacred Harp singing is a certain lack of sensitivity to emerging regional variations. It’s pretty obvious that Chicago Sacred Harp singers sound different from Boston singers, and Western Massachusetts singers sound still different again. What’s less obvious is what the absolute standard for urban revival singers should be. I’ve had urban revival singers tell me that they aim to sound like traditional Southern singers — but which Southern tradition? Hoboken-style singing from southeastern Georgia? Or the Wiregrass singers from Alabama? Or should one aim to sound like the Lomax field recordings of the Lookout Mountain Convention? Or like vintage recordings of the Denson Quartet?

Coming from a folk music background, I assume that folk music traditions are always changing and evolving, and therefore there is no Platonic ideal of Sacred Harp singing to which we should all aspire. I also assume that over time, regional variations will evolve, if they’re left to evolve and not subjected to homogenization. Coming from a folk music background, when I go into a Sacred Harp community that is not my own, I do a lot more listening than singing to start off. I want to know if these singers use ornaments or not, what kind of sound my section is producing, whether they shade various notes of the scale up or down a little bit, and so on. Not that I’m trying to “blend,” as the choral directors tell you to do — but I am trying to sing their way to the extent that I’m able.

What I have to learn is that Sacred Harp is not folk music. The urban revival of Sacred Harp is just that: a revival, with no long and definite local traditions. Since there aren’t real local traditions, there’s no expectation that we should be respectful of local traditions, except of course when you’re visiting a traditional Southern singing. All this is true, but this also means that we’re not going to see much evolution of local traditions in the urban revival; we’ll always be the poor imitations, instead of the real thing.