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.