New compositions

The latest issue of The Trumpet

I’ve been reading through the latest issue of The Trumpet, the year-old online publication that features new tunes in the Sacred Harp tradition. The new issue meets or exceeds the high editorial standards of the first two issues, which is to say all the tunes seem well worth singing.

Several of the tunes caught my attention, and I spent a little more time on them, playing them through on the piano and/or singing individual vocal lines (within the limits of my narrow range). I’ll discuss them each briefly in the order in which they appear in The Trumpet.

Singing at home

A healing moment

During the day today, a poet friend and I participated in an interfaith clergy demonstration of support at Occupy San Francisco, and after that was over we spent a couple of hours at Occupy Oakland. I was moved by the way many of the occupiers seemed really committed to helping the poor; which was the central mission of that radical rabble-rouser, Jesus of Nazareth; and at Occupy Oakland, some of the occupiers were in fact homeless, disenfranchised, and out-of-work people, just the kind of people Jesus hung out with. But I can’t think that the political establishment today will be any more open to a moral call to support the poor than was the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day. I left Occupy Oakland feeling depressed.

So I went to sing from the Sacred Harp. I arrived late. I did not want to lead a tune. I did not sing well. But at the end of the singing, I felt restored. Such is the power of this music we sing: it can drive “these dark clouds from my sky” (Green Fields).

Singing at home

Alternate words to “Stafford”

The tune Stafford is printed in The Sacred Harp with one verse of Isaac Watts’ metrical paraphrase of Psalm 118.22-27, a verse which is notable for its outdated and unpleasant anti-Jewish/supersessionist theology. The theology of the poem is so outdated, and so universally rejected among both Christian and non-Christian persons, that many Sacred Harp singers today don’t like to sing Stafford. The pairing of this text with Daniel Read’s lovely tune is unfortunate: we avoid singing this great tune because of the unpleasant theology.

Yet Watts’ original poem had five additional verses, none of which is objectionable. It is not clear that Read wrote Stafford with the Watts poem in mind, although from what I can gather from reading scholarly sources (e.g. The Core repertory of early American psalmody vol. 11-12 ed. Richard Crawford), the tune appears to have been associated with the poem since Read’s lifetime; and in other sources, Read’s tune is reproduced with all six verses. Since the other five verses hew more closely to the original Psalm text and avoid the unpleasant theology of the first verse, why not then replace the objectionable verse with one or more of the other five verses of the original poem, a poem that Read would have known?

I typeset two verses of Watts’ poem with “Stafford” and presented it to tonight’s weekly singing in Berkeley. It sounded just fine, and the alternate words were fun to sing. Here’s the sheet music:

78. Stafford, with alternate words. S.M.

Update: I note with pleasure that the latest issue of The Trumpet contains a newly-written text for the song, based on an acrostic of the names of Watts and Read. This version is also notable for restoring Read’s original alto line. The new words are fun and singable, though I admit to liking Watts’ vigorous poetry better (but then, I’m biased: for me, Watts is the best hymn-writer in the English language).

Singing at home

Music geek joke

Tonight someone stood up and called 440 “North Salem.” The four of us on the front bench of the bass section opened our books to that page. Next to me, Jeremy said in an undertone, “It should be in A.”

I looked at the tune, which is in E minor. I tried to figure out what Jeremy meant. I knew that Idumea, which is notated in the key of A minor, is actually sung in E minor on the field recording of the 1968 Lookout Mountain Convention; I looked at “North Salem” and thought that if it were pitched down a fourth from A minor, it would be singable but probably too low. “What do you m—” I began.

“440. It should be A,” said Jeremy.

The terrible joke suddenly burst in on me: standard concert pitch sets the frequency of A above middle C at 440 Hertz. “Not if it were Baroque,” I shot back, “then it would be 415.”

Fortunately, David began to pitch the song, so we had to shut up.

Singing at home

You never know when…

It was a typical holiday singing, with fewer singers than usual. And we were missing the singers who usually run things: when it came time for our break, there was no one present to call for announcements.

Which brings me to an admission: I am not a particularly good Sacred Harp singer, nor shall I ever be particularly good. I have a slow ear, my voice is unreliable, I’m easily led astray by others, and above all I’m not serious enough. This last failing may be the most damaging. Singing and music for me are a means to an end, and that end is best described as some kind of transcendent ecstasy. Not that words adequately describe what I’m trying to get at. Some of the old Southern Sacred Harp singers might have called it a longing for union with God. William Billings tried to describe it many times, as in this description of fuguing tunes:

Now the solemn bass demands their their attention, now the manly tenor, now the lofty counter [alto], now the volatile treble, now here, now there, now here again. — Oh inchanting! O ecstatic! Push on, push on ye sons of harmony, and
   Discharge your deep mouth’d canon, full fraught with Diapasons;
   May you with Maestoso, rush on to Choro-Grando,
   And then with Vigoroso, let fly your Diapentes
   About our nervous system.

In his book How Sweet the Sound: Music in the Spiritual Lives of Americans, David Stowe, professor of writing and American culture at Michigan State University, says that in this passage, “a kind of synesthesia is taking place, by which musical tones and patterns take personality and material form…. Also unmistakable is Billings’ sense of the music as erotic, with musical performance of the fuguing tune as an aural orgasm.” [p. 58]

For me, neither the union with God as experienced by traditional Christians, nor the “aural orgasm” that David Stowe finds in Billings is exactly accurate. But that’s the nature of transcendent experiences: you can’t adequately describe them in words.

And the nature of transcendent experiences is that you can’t predict when they’ll show up. I hit a few transcendent moments this evening: moments when suddenly the music was tangible, I could hear its movement around me, and what we were doing transcended our individual abilities and voices. The music transcended our singing of it: I managed to connect with the music that is always there and is always waiting to burst in upon us.

So even holiday singings that are smaller than usual can turn out to be really good singings. Even people like me who are not particularly good singers, and not serious enough, can contribute to a really good singing. If, that is, you’re willing to define a really good singing, not in terms of how it might sound as a performance, but how it felt to those of us who were singing.

So we got to 9:30, the time when we usually end very promptly, and Joanne said she was sorry that we didn’t have time to sing 347 Christian Farewell. We all looked at one another, and we decided, what the heck, we’d go past ending time tonight. We sang as well or better than we had sung all night, and I was glad we had gone past time. Later, after we had put everything away, and stood around talking for a quarter of an hour, and gone our separate ways, I was walking towards my car when David and Joanne drove by with their windows open, singing 347 together as they drove off into the dark and rainy night.

Other events Singing at home

Singing school, final session

We had 28-30 people show up for the final session of the fall singing school today (people kept coming and going, so I never got a firm count). Our singing master once again was Julian Damashek. Julian was planning on spending a short time on fuguing tunes, and then throwing it open to a question and answer session, but it quickly became clear that there were lots of absolute beginners who had not attended the first two sessions of the singing school. So Julian spent a quarter of an hour quickly going over the basics, before moving into his planned session on fuguing tunes. Then someone from the class asked about repeats, and Julian went over what a repeat is, when it is optional, and when it is not optional. And that ate up the entire hour. It’s amazing how quickly an hour goes by!

Once again, the class sounded very good indeed, thanks both the the experienced singers who came, and the many newer singers who sang extremely well.

And now a little review and evaluation of the singing school as a whole:

Reading list

A 19th C. singing school

I couldn’t be at the local singing this week, so a post on some reading I’ve been doing.

Many — probably most — of today’s Sacred Harp singers, if they consider the matter at all, would assume that by the middle of the nineteenth century, the singing school tradition had died out in New England. But the singing school persisted in the rural areas of northern New England through the nineteenth century. Northern New England in the nineteenth century was a remote, rural region — even a frontier region — in the northern Appalachians, and it had more in common with the rural South than with urban New England. I do not believe they were using shape notes, but nevertheless they were conducting singing schools.

Jennifer C. Post, in her book Music in Rural New England: Family and Community Life, 1870-1940 (Durham, N.H.: University of New Hampshire Press, 2004), reports on a mid-nineteenth century Vermonter who attended singing schools:

Charles Cobb (1835-1903) of Woodstock, Vermont, provided information on his attendance at “singing school” in his mid-nineteenth century diary. He notes that the earliest singing school he went to was in 1845, and in 1850 he was reluctant to go during a period when his voice was changing. He went often with his mother during this period (though he noted that his mother attended on her own as well). In 1854 he wrote about a friend who attended the singing school with him, providing rare details of the event that include references to issue pertaining to economic value, sociability, aesthetic concerns, lyrical content, and performance practice:

“He has bought a singing book & paid 58 cents and is impatient to get his money’s worth. He starched up & went to singing school Jan. 1 — I went also — they bawled some psalm tunes, out of tune, in such a manner that the words could barely be heard only by those who had them before their eyes, and to close off, thing singing master (Oscar Perkins), Harvey Vaughan and Smith the schoolmaster sung some funny songs accompanying on Vaughan’s melodeon. After such a monotonous and universal howling it was a treat to hear some real singing.

I note with interest that some of this sounds quite familiar: after my first singing school I went and bought a singing book and yes I did want to get my money’s worth out of that book; when I go to a convention I “starch up,” that is, put on good clothes; and I’ve been to one or two singings where I’ve heard psalm tunes bawled out of tune so that you couldn’t understand the words (and I’ve been guilty of some bawling myself).

Post goes on to note that in some rural regions in northern New England, the first singing schools were not established until the mid-nineteenth century; in Colebrook, New Hampshire, the first singing school was not established until 1870. This is not so different from the course of events in the South, where singing schools were established through the mid-nineteenth century.

Today, we Sacred Harp singers tend to think of conventions and all-day singings and shaped notes as the defining features of our tradition. But we still call the group that gathers at a convention a “class,” and shape notes are merely a pedagogical tool to help us learn sight singing. I’d argue that the conventions and all-day singings were built on the foundation of the singing school. If we think of ourselves as part of a broader singing school tradition, that might mean we have some interesting musical cousins outside Sacred Harp singing.