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Ruth Crawford Seeger and Sacred Harp singing style

I’ve been down and out with the flu since May 17: even if I had had the energy to go to a singing, I have had no voice. But I have been reading a lot, out of boredom, and I happened to reread Ruth Crawford Seeger’s “Music Preface” for Alan and John Lomax’s Our Singing Country. Seeger, a brilliant composer in her own right, mother of Mike and Peggy Seeger and stepmother of Pete Seeger, spent several years transcribing American folk songs from field recordings. In the process, she became something of an expert in traditional performance practice of American folk singers.

“No one who has studied these or similar recordings [Seeger writes in her “Music Preface”] can deny that the song and its singing are indissolubly connected — that the character of a song depends to a great extent on the manner of its singing.” Therefore, Seeger offers suggestions on how to sing American folk songs. And many of her suggestions sound like the advice we hear on how to sing Sacred Harp tunes. Here are some examples of what I mean:

1. Do not hesitate to sing because you think your voice is “not good” — i.e., has not been “trained.” These songs are better sung in the manner of the natural than the trained (bel canto) voice. Do not try to “smooth out” your voice. If it is reedy or nasal, so much the better….

3. Do not sing “with expression,” or make an effort to dramatize. Maintain a level of more or less the same degree of loudness or softness from beginning to end of the song.

4. Do not slow down at the ends of phrases, stanzas, or songs. Frequent, stereotyped ritardandos are rarely heard in the singing of these songs.

5. Do not heistate to keep time with your foot. Unless otherwise indicated, sing with a fairly strong accent….

15. Do not “sing down” to the songs. Theirs is an old tradition, dignified by hundreds of thousands of singers over long periods of time.

I had read Seeger’s suggestions for singing folk songs long before I began singing Sacred Harp tunes; and because of her suggestions, I persist in thinking of Sacred Harp music from the perspective of traditional American folk musical practice — because Sacred Harp performance practice feels very similar to traditional American folk song performance practice, and it feels quite distinct from performance practices in the classical, jazz, or popular music traditions. And this close similarity in performance practice is why I persist in categorizing Sacred Harp as folk or traditional music, and why I think of those of us who sing Sacred Harp outside of traditional contexts as urban revivalists.

Written 25 May, backdated to 21 May.

One reply on “Ruth Crawford Seeger and Sacred Harp singing style”

Oh no! I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. (I was knocked out by a really bad cold this past week, so I feel your pain.)

I love these suggestions for folk singing, and I agree they work perfectly for Sacred Harp! While I certainly prefer to attend a singing that is generally in tune (in the right ballpark, anyway), beyond that, I like the “untrained” sound of traditional sacred harp singing. It’s SUPPOSED to sound a little “off” and dissonant.

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