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The Sacred Harp with one verse of Isaac Watts’ metrical paraphrase of Psalm 118.22-27, a verse which is notable for its outdated and unpleasant anti-Jewish/supersessionist theology. The theology of the poem is so outdated, and so universally rejected among both Christian and non-Christian persons, that many Sacred Harp singers today don’t like to sing Stafford.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.