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.