I’m in the Boston area for a visit, and stopped in to sing with Norumbega Harmony, one of the oldest local singings of the northern urban revival. Norumbega Harmony has a monthly open singing which is advertised to the public — but according to their Web site, their weekly singing is not advertised, and while new local singers are welcome to attend they ask for a somewhat serious commitment. Visiting singers are of course always welcome to drop in and sing.
This is perhaps the friendliest local singing I have yet attended. They all knew each other, and chatted among themselves between songs, but they made sure to include me in their conversations. They did introductions right after the singing started, which also felt very welcoming.
Norumbega Harmony sings from at least four different books: the Denson book, their own Norumbega Harmony, the Sacred Harper’s Companion (a collection of new tunes), and The Northern Harmony. Several of them also sing West Gallery music regularly — that’s an English predecessor to Sacred Harp music, and there’s regular West Gallery singing in the Boston area — and it wasn’t sung tonight, it was much talked about. And several of them had just been to the Jeremiah Ingalls singing in Vermont the previous weekend. So this was not your average Sacred Harp singing focused only on music from the Denson book.
In fact, we didn’t sing much, perhaps a quarter of the tunes, from the Denson book. Another quarter of the tunes came from The Northern Harmony, a third from Norumbega Harmony, and the rest from the Sacred Harper’s Companion. Nearly all the tunes were from the eighteenth century, the very early nineteenth century, or the late twentieth century. I recall one mid-twentieth century tune, nothing from the mid-to-let nineteenth century (except the one I led), and nothing from the twenty-first century.
I don’t know many tunes from the Norumbega Harmony, and none from the Northern Harmony or the Companion, so I was doing a good deal of sight-reading. But it was easy to sight-read with these singers: they knew these tunes well, led them well, and sang them well. There were five or six basses (one man switched between bass and alto), all of whom sang well, some of whom sang extremely well, and it was easy for me to follow them. The other singers — three or four altos, three trebles, and five tenors — also sang well. The overall sound was not a traditional Southern sound; it was full-throated and vigorous, but there wasn’t the strong distinction between the parts that I’d expect from a traditional Southern singing: no altos who peel paint with their voices, no rumbly bass sound, no nasal tenors. They don’t have that rounded tone formal choirs use, but it wasn’t as pinched or as harsh as traditional Southern singing can be.
In any case, they sang very well indeed. My partner Carol came early to pick me up, and she waited in a nearby room where she could hear us. When I finally got out, I said, “Boy, they are good.” And she said, “They really are good.” That’s high praise from someone who doesn’t ordinarily like listening to shape note singing all that much. It was also clear to me that these people have spent many hours singing together: they sing every week, they talked about going on retreats together, and many of them have obviously been singing together for decades. You could tell they knew each other’s voices well, had long since reached a tacit consensus on what vocal quality they would use, and had long since settled on a tuning that was far from equal temperament and close to some kind of just intonation. They sounded great.
I also became aware that many of them know a great deal about the history of the repertoire and have researched it in depth, particularly the late eighteenth century repertoire. This fits in with a wider musical culture in the Boston area, where performers of early music and folk musicians also do lots of research into the music they perform.
My only complaint with Norumbega Harmony was that two hours was not enough time to spend singing with this group of friendly, welcoming, talented singers.