Singing at home

How slow?

ABout halfway through tonight’s weekly Monday singing in Berkeley, a couple of first-time Sacred Harp singers walked in, and sat in the tenor section. They were friends with Susan, who made sure they sat next to an experienced singer; this is all the way it should be.

Now the Berkeley singing tends to sing tunes at a good fast clip, and tonight was no exception. However, when new singers show up, I think it’s nice to lead one or two tunes at a more moderate tempo, out of politeness to those new signers who are sight-singing nearly every tune for the first time, an exercise which can be tiring.

So I started in to lead a tune at a fairly slow tempo — well, slow by Berkeley standards; I figure I was leading a 4/4 tune at a slow moderato, maybe 84-88 beats per minute. The class kept pushing the tempo, however, so that by the time we had finished singing the shapes we were singing at a fast moderato, say 100-108 beats per minute. I reminded the class to watch my tempo, and we started off singing the words at a slow moderato, but by the end of the tune had sped up about the same amount again.

I ahve experienced this before, and I have watched as better, more experienced leaders than I have had their tempo speeded up or slowed down by the class. Ask any Sacred Harp singer, and they will tell you that whoever is leading is in charge, and that the class always follows the leader — but I think we’re fooling ourselves when we say that, because it’s not entirely true. Local custom can be a stronger force than even the most experienced leader.

Singing at home

2 vs. 4

Sue hosted the fourth Sunday singing at her house in Mountain View today. There were twelve to fourteen people in Sue’s music room — which just about filled the room — and it was a very good singing indeed. It was especially fun to have an out=of-town singer, JT from Austin, join us.

Of course we sang a lot of Christmas tunes from The Sacred Harp. In addition to those tunes, Paul and I each brought a different version of “Star in the East,” a Christmas tune from William Walker’s Southern Harmony; my version was Walker’s version with an alto part that I wrote, and Paul’s was a complete re-harmonoization of the melody, with a quite challenging and very interesting bass part. I also brought the three-part version of Lowell Mason’s “Antioch” (a.k.a. “Joy to the World”) from the Southern Harmony.

At one point, JT led a 4/4 tune in 4, and someone asked what was the difference in elading a tune in 4 versus leading the same tune in 2. We tried to explain how when you lead a 4/4 tune in 2, the class is going to tend to accent the first and third beats more heavily than if you lead it in 2. Finally JT said, “Let’s just try it.” So we did: JT led the same tune in 2, at the same tempo, and you could hear the much stronger accents on the first and third beats. When we finished, the person who had asked the question said they really understood the difference now. And I was glad we had done the experiment, too — you really notice the difference when you lead a tune in 4, then immediately lead it again in 2.

Singing at home

Back in Berkeley

After a two month absence, I was able to sing at the Berkeley weekly singing again this week. I picked the right night to return, as there were close to thirty singers at one point in the evening: something like ten tenors, nine or ten basses, four or five altos, and three or four trebles. All Saints Chapel, the site of the weekly singing, sounds much better when there are two dozen or more singers. And any singing sounds better — in my opinion, anyway — when there are lots of basses. And it was just a good class of singers — sure, there were plenty of newer singers, but every part had at least one or two singers who were both good musicians and very aware of the Sacred Harp traditions.

As we were singing, I got to thinking about tradition-bearers within the Sacred Harp tradition. Tradition bearers are usually thought of as those individuals who pass along a folk tradition, not by writing about the tradition, but by face-to-face communication like oral transmission, teaching, demonstration, etc. The Sacred Harp tradition gets complicated a little bit by the fact that the material culture of our tradition consists of written texts: a tunebook, and minutes books. So maybe we could say that the Sacred Harp tradition consists of folk traditions transmitted orally and through demonstrations (such as singing schools) which are centered around our (written texts) material culture.

I’m not a folklore scholar, so this is about as precise a definition I can offer. But I think it’s a useful definition, because it helps me think about the folklore that surrounds our written texts.

So, for example, when I wanted to start an all-day singing in Palo Alto, I found barebones written instructions in The Sacred Harp, and I found general outlines of all-day singings in the minutes books, and I had outlines written down by previous chairs of Bay Area singings. But I knew much more from having attended a number of all-day singings and conventions, particularly Bay area all-day singings. And my first step was not to consult the written texts available to me — my first step was to have long talks with Chris Thorman and Carolyn Deacy, because at that time they were the primary Bay area tradition bearers if you wanted to know how to run an all-day singing. (Now that Hugh McGuire is singing regularly again, I would also sit down and talk with him — he has chaired his share of all-day singings and conventions, and grew up singing in the tradition in the South.)

Or, for another example, if you want to learn how to sing Sacred Harp, you can find basic instructions in the Rudiments section of The Sacred Harp. And you can attend practice singings, which in the Bay Area are dominated by people like me, who may be competent singers and who may even have quite a bit of knowledge about the tradition, but who are not really tradition bearers. So you have to find tradition bearers that you can listen to sing, and watch lead tunes. In the Bay area, I have found two kinds of bearers of the singing traditions: (1) singers from the South who grew up singing Sacred Harp and who have both internalized the tradition and are talented enough to be able to pass it on; (2) singers who have been singing in the Bay Area long enough that they embody our emerging regional tradition and who are, again, talented enough to pass those traditions on.

It’s easy to name the first type of bearer of singing traditions: there’s Hugh McGuire, and then we get some visiting singers like Carol Selleck who sang with us in Palo Alto this fall. It’s not quite as easy to name the Bay Area singers who are the bearers of our peculiar regional singing traditions. I would think about those singers who have been singing in the Bay Area for quite a few years, who embody the Bay Area style of fast tempos, straight rhythms (very little swing), minimal ornamentation, and pure harmonies (i.e., Bay Area singers seem to sing in some form of just intonation). I know I’ve learned a lot from watching and listening to Chris Thorman, a gifted singer who has been singing in the Bay Area for more than half his life. I’ve also learned a lot from watching and listening to people like Linda Selph, talented singers who learned to sing in the Bay Area, have been singing here for a decade or two, and who embody our regions traditions.

I thought about our bearers of singing tradition while I sat in tonight’s Berkeley singing. In addition to traditional Southern singers, and Bay area singers, we also have a lot of singers who moved here from some other region of the urban Sacred Harp revival. If I listen hard at our Bay Area singings, sometimes I can hear the influences of the Chicago singers (hey, that sounded like Judy Hauff); or the influences of the Western Massaschusetts singers (hey, that sounded like someone who learned to sing by listening to Tim Ericksen), or the northern New England singers (hey, that sounded like someone who sang with one of Larry Gordon’s groups). I think I sound like eastern New England singers, because eastern New England singers sound like the church singing I grew up with and that’s something I’m never going to get over. — And then when Hugh stands up to lead, I can hear Mississippi loud and clear (which is utterly delightful).

As I sit there and listen to all these competing influences at our singings, I’m amazed that I can distinguish a Bay Area sound at all. And sometimes that Bay Area sound gets swamped, and disappears for a while. But I heard it tonight — that solid bass with the other parts singing pure fifths and fourths above it; that solid straight rhythm; and above all those fast tempos. But who is bearing that Bay Area tradition for us? — who are the singers who embody that sound, who are talented enough that the rest of us schlumps are willing to learn from them? This is the challenge of emerging regional traditions within the urban revival: the rest of us being willing to pay attention to the local tradition bearers long enough for regional traditions to truly emerge.

Reading list

Watching Sacred Harp videos

My work life has been pretty time-consuming, so I haven’t had much time to sing Sacred Harp in the past few months. (Oh, and there was that other group that Hannah-from-the-altos and I sang with, but that’s a story for another post.) In any case, I’ve been getting my Sacred Harp fix in other ways: singing by myself, giving a presentation on Sacred Harp to a church group, and — watching Sacred Harp videos.

Yep, watching videos. Watching lots of Sacred Harp videos. After all this video-watching, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

(1) The best collection of Sacred Harp videos is not on Youtube — it’s on Vimeo. Go to where you’ll find “Sacred Harp Memories” has uploaded incredible vintage footage dating back to the 1970s.

If you want to show your friends some real Sacred Harp singing, this is what you should be showing them.


(2) The Cork, Ireland Sacred Harp group has uploaded a huge amount of video from their conventions and other singings. The Cork singers have a sweet and flowing style, and I admit to liking a sharper, more rhythmically defined style of singing. Nevertheless, I really appreciate the care that goes into making the videos: excellent audio quality; good mic placement (so all four parts are balanced); camera mounted on a tripod with little or no herky-jerky camera movement; simple but effective editing and titles. I wish everyone who made Sacred Harp videos (including me) produced videos of this high quality.

(3) Having watched videos from many different regions, I’ve determined that there are one or two places where I’ve not yet sung but would really like to sing. The Lookout Mountain Convention, for one. Bremen, Germany, for another, even though I know I’ll never get there.

Then I found a whole cache of videos from the 2013 Kalamazoo, Michigan, singing. Not only was it fun to see some West Coast singers in these videos (Linda, Clarissa, Jeff), and some other people I know or recognize (Will, Bess, several others); not only are there several men wearing ties (including at least one bow tie); but I like the way these people sing — slower than us Bay area singers but with great power, with enthusiasm that bursts through at all the right places. And while the production qualities of these videos are not such that you’d show them to your friends who are asking you about Sacred Harp, they are exactly the kind of videos we Sacred Harp singers want to see — because the camera pans across all the singers, and from several different vantage points, so you can see exactly who was there.

Here’s one of the Kalamazoo singing videos to get you started: