Yesterday afternoon, on the last day of Camp Fasola, half a dozen of us were sitting on a porch at Camp McDowell; I was the only non-Southerner in the group. We were idly talking over what we had done at camp, and one of the others brought up the fact that sometimes Camp Fasola various people would sit in a lesson showing that they knew more than the others, or even more than whomever was teaching the lesson. He said, “It’s like a — like — ” and then he stopped, unable to find a suitable way of putting it. I said drily, “Up in New England, we call it a pissing match.” Everyone laughed, but we went on to refine the idea further: a sense of competition often emerges among Sacred Harp singers.
Why is this so? Why do we Sacred Harp singers get competitive at times?
Sacred Harp singing is traditional music that exists within a strong traditional social structure. Just about anyone can learn to sing the music; the whole point of the Sacred Harp and the four-shape system of note heads is to make it possible for anyone to learn how to sing. Pretty quickly you learn the basics, and learn how to sight-sing from four-shape note heads, and even learn how to lead a song. The basics are pretty straightforward.
After you get the basics, Sacred Harp singing gets more complicated: the basics are written down, but there are other aspects of the music that are only passed on by oral tradition. Early on, new Sacred Harp singers learn that no. 183 Greenwich starts out at a slow to moderate tempo, but the fuguing section is led at a fairly quick tempo; even though there is no written indication, you are supposed to know that is the traditional way to lead that song.
As you sing more, you begin to learn that there is no consensus on some aspects of the tradition. Early on, you learn that traditional singers raise the sixth in minor tunes. Then someone tells you that traditional singers don’t raise the sixth in some tunes, and you start to memorize which tunes should have the sixth raised and which shouldn’t. Then someone else tells you that Sacred Harp singers raise all the sixths in every minor tune. Then someone else tells you that in some traditional Southern singings, they raise all the sixths, while in other traditional Southern singings they don’t. Then someone else tells you that in one specific traditional Southern singing, some traditional singers will raise a given sixth while others won’t, resulting in the buzzing sound of a minor second.
If you learn how to sing Sacred Harp by going to traditional Southern singings of a certain geographical region, you will learn to sing in a particular regional style, as influenced by some some of the strong individual singers you hear around you. If you learn to sing in the urban and suburban revival of Sacred Harp singing, you’re going to be learning mostly from people who are not traditional singers, but who perhaps have gone South and learned from traditional singers. Either way, you’ve learned certain ways of doing things, and when you get around other Sacred Harp singers you find out that other singers do things differently, and you might be tempted to enter into discussions where you assert that your way of singing is more correct than other ways of singing.
In the urban and suburban revival of Sacred Harp singing, matters are complicated by the fact that only a limited number of revival singers have enough time and money to travel to the South to hear and sing with traditional singers. These singers who can afford to travel South include a high proportion of academics with a research interest in Sacred Harp singing, professionals who are either retired or who have launched their children, and professional young adults with few home responsibilities. These folks tend to be highly educated, used to expressing their opinions, and used to being right. It’s no wonder that sometimes discussions about Sacred Harp singing can sound competitive.
Given all this, what is remarkable is how well we get along on average. I sometimes wonder at the patience of the traditional singers who are willing to put up with the constant pestering questions of revival singers who come south. And more often than not, even the most argumentative of revival singers are willing to stop arguing and just sing.
I draw three tentative conclusions from all this:
One: This morning, I was sitting at breakfast talking with a singer who is from the north, a former academic, and a trained musician. He said that his great insight at Camp Fasola this year was that “it’s not about information, it’s about the singing”; that is, knowing facts about Sacred Harp singing is far less important than listening to good singers.
Two: When it comes to Sacred Harp singing, often there is no one right answer.
Three: We are at our best when we stop talking about Sacred Harp music, and just sing.
Update 27 June: Corrected the number of Greenwich — thanks, Clarissa!