I just got my copy of Sacred Harp Singings 2012 & 2013: 2012 Minutes, 2013 Directory, and Names and Addresses of Sacred Harp Singers — also known as the Minutes Book. On page 177, in the minutes for Camp Fasola 2012 Adult Session, Wednesday 13 June, “Lesson: Questions Not Yet Answered Panel Discussion,” I find the following:
“Question: How do you think Sacred Harp singing has changed the most? Answer: … The singers were more in tune with one another decades ago and seemed to listen to each other better than we do today….”
Unfortunately, the minutes don’t say which of the four panelists — Dan Brittain, Judy Caudle, Buell Cobb, or David Ivey — made this remark.
I think a lot about intonation listening to other singers when I’m singing from the Sacred Harp, probably for theological reasons: for me, singing represents an unmediated manifestation of what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, and which theologian Bernard Loomer has explained as the web of life: the deep awareness of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings (see note below). This is in direct contrast to the theological grounding of our consumer society, in which many people hold that the highest value is gratifying one’s own personal needs and desires regardless of impact on the web of life. When I sing, I’m hoping for the New Jerusalem to literally come down among us, adorning us with shining grace.
As a realist, I know this won’t happen, because there is no such thing as singing perfectly. Of all the musical instruments, the human voice is both the most perfect, and the most subject to physical changes and limitations. You could hear plenty of those limitations at tonight’s singing: it seemed that nearly everyone was coughing or clearing their throat, and many voices sounded husky.
Yet tonight we sang better than we have for a long time. The many husky voices may have helped keep us from one of our besetting sins in the Berkeley weekly singing, singing loudly enough that we can’t adequately hear the other parts (a tendency of ours that is exaggerated by the acoustics of All Saints Church). More importantly, we had good leadership in each of the sections. Now I know we’re all supposed to be equals when we sing Sacred Harp, but I also know that there are some singers who can make a whole section sound better, because these people listen carefully to the other parts, and they listen carefully to the others in their section, supporting and encouraging others with their voices. These singers, the best singers, may not be the ones you hear over all the others, but when they’re in a section somehow that whole section starts singing together, and the whole sounds better than the sum of the parts.
I’m doing badly at describing this, I know; I also have trouble trying to describe how the New Jerusalem will come down to earth. Suffice it to say that tonight we were singing together better than we have been recently. As Carol and I walked out after it was over, I said, “That was a pretty good singing tonight.” “It was,” she said. We went home feeling good.
Note: For you theology geeks, here are two theological references: