Singing at home

High energy

Almost from the beginning, tonight’s singing had a lot of energy. We had exhilarating singing for about forty-five minutes: a loud bright sound, true intonation, and faster than normal tempi — in fact, a couple of times the class seemed to speed up the lesson and the leader had to work to keep up; once, the leader stopped us and reminded the class to pay attention to the leader.

Why was the singing so good? Perhaps because some of the singers who came down for the Golden Gate stayed for tonight’s singing, including a particularly strong bass and a particularly strong alto. Now plenty of our local singers are good, strong singers; but when you’re singing with 20 or so people, just a couple of strong new voices can add something exciting. And there is something about going back to your regular practice singing after a good all-day singing or a convention: the excitement of singing with a large group can stay with you for some time.

After that first forty-five minutes, our energy began to flag a little. We mostly had had bright, high-energy songs. I felt myself getting a little tired; our intonation wasn’t quite as true; and I was relieved when we had a tune that didn’t take quite as much energy on my part. We recovered after break — not surprisingly, we took a longer break than usual — and the singing got strong again in the second half, although for me it never quite hit that transcendent level we reached early on. Perhaps if we had interjected a few more slow or somber tunes among the high-energy tunes we could have maintained our energy for longer; though that seems like overkill for a two-hour practice singing.

All-day singings & conventions

Golden Gate All-Day Singing

Info on 8th annual Golden Gate: click here.

The seventh annual Golden Gate All-Day Singing took place today, the annual singing put on by Bay Area Sacred Harp. Attendance was lower this year than last year, no doubt because this year the singing happened to fall the day before Easter; this probably cut in to attendance by out of town singers (who may have had family obligations), and even by local singers (some of our regulars didn’t make it). Nevertheless, we had over 90 singers join us over the course of the day, including singers from Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Michigan, and Massachusetts; as well as singers from all over northern California.

My only complaint was the singing was louder than I prefer, partly because the room was so very bright acoustically. Years ago, I damaged my ears with too much punk rock and too many hours using power tools without hearing protection. So now at big singings I prefer to sit on the back bench in a far corner of the bass section. But even sitting back there, my ears were ringing by mid-day. I know Sacred Harp singers are supposed to love being in the center of the hollow square, but if you think about it, it’s really not a great place to be if you don’t care for loud music. (What I really need to do is go get fitted for a pair of high-quality musician’s earplugs: 10 db drop in the noise level would make the hollow square tolerable, and a 20 db drop might make it pleasant.)

That aside, the singing was quite strong. Every section had several very strong singers to carry them along, and plenty of ordinarily strong singers to boot. Some of those who led lessons set tempos that were quite fast, but the class not only managed to keep up but on more than one occasion speeded the tempo up. As usual, I got introduced to a couple of songs that I had never heard sung before — and that, I think, is the best thing about all-day singings and conventions: the opportunity to sing through a significant portion of The Sacred Harp.

P.S. Of course we sang Billings’ “Easter Anthem” — how could we avoid it on the day before Easter?

Update: Here’s a great video of Jill leading 52t, with children:

Singing at home

No. 479, Chester, with the original words

Today is the day before April 19 — and April 19 (as is well know by every schoolchild in Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts) is the anniversary of the Battle of Concord and Lexington, the battle that began the Revolutionary War. I grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, and April 19 was a big holiday for us as kids: we got to go see the parade, and watch the reenactment of the battle (the Red Coats always lose), and wander around town with our friends.

So I could not resist leading Chester, no. 479, by William Billings, with the original words probably written by Billings. The first verse appears in his 1770 tune book The New England Psalm-Singer:

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav’ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.

The other four verses appear in full in his 1778 book The Singing Master’s Assistant:

Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescot and Cornwallis join’d,
Together plot our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin’d.

When God inspir’d us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc’d,
Their ships were Shatter’d in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our Coast.

The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their Vet’rans flee before our Youth,
And Gen’rals yield to beardless Boys.

What grateful Off’ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,
And praise his name on ev’ry Chord.

I assume that these last four verses were written after the 1770 book, for these verses mention events that had not yet happened in 1770, but were very much in people’s minds in 1778.

Tonight, we sang the first and fourth of the original verses. Tonight’s class gave a powerful and stirring rendition of this glorious tune — perhaps because these words are more fun to sing than the perfectly fine poetry that’s in the book, for these words were written to match the tune. And in case you want to try this yourself, here’s a PDF of the tune with the four of the original five verses:

Chester. L.M. With original words.

Singing at home

No. 334

I’ve been working through some of the mid-nineteenth century tunes in The Sacred Harp, and a couple of weeks ago came across no. 334, “O Come Away.” Temperance songs were a small but important category of mid-nineteenth century hymns, and the words to “O Come Away” are typical of the category:

We welcome you!
Ye who with taste perverted
Have seized the cup and drank it up —
We welcome you here!
Come join us in our holy aim,
The poor besotted to reclaim,
The broken heart to cheer again,
O come, sign the pledge!

Personally, I have a fondness for temperance songs, partly because earlier generations of both sides of my family were temperance people, and partly because in my work I’ve seen the ugly side of alcoholism. But I know I’m a minority — most of the people I sing with haven’t much interest in these hymns, nor in the tunes that accompany them.

Tonight, a man walked into All Saints Chapel while we were singing, and started talking loudly. He wasn’t the usual crazy street person you see in Berzerkely; he was clean and well-shaven. But he was obviously wasted — a strong smell of alcohol on his breath, and by the look of him, probably some other intoxicants in his bloodstream — he was pretty much out of his head. He had locked himself out of his apartment building nearby, and we managed to get him home. Not long after he had gone, my turn came to lead a song, and I chose no. 334, which I led as a sort of prayer for that man — in hopes that he could find a way to live his life that wouldn’t involve that level of intoxication ever again.

When the singing was over, and I was walking to my car, I had to walk past the building where he lived. There was an ambulance and a firetruck out front, their red lights flashing in the night. I hoped that they weren’t there to pick up that man — but he was so wasted that I can’t help but wonder if he was why there were in front of that particular building.

Singing at home

Warning: theological humor

For many of us who work in the religion business, Rob Bell is very much in our awareness these days — Bell is the evangelical pastor who has been accused of believing in universal salvation. As someone who’s a Universalist, and who’s not an evangelical, I’ve been staying out of this debate. But I was very tempted tonight to lead Greenwich, and dedicate it to Rob Bell:

But, oh, their end, their dreadful end,
Thy sanctuary taught me so,
On slipp’ry rocks I see them stand,
And fiery billows roll below.

However, this would have been in bad taste, and besides probably no one would have known who Rob Bell is.

Singing at home

Singing from The Trumpet

Will Fitzgerald, one of the editors of The Trumpet, the new online publication of new Sacred Harp compositions, was in San Francisco and arranged to have a singing of the first issue of The Trumpet at the Church of the Sojourners. We had a good turn out: four basses, four altos, three trebles, and eight or so tenors (a couple of whom helped out us basses when we got stuck).

We sang through all 14 songs, and I feel we gave most of them a reasonably good hearing, although our intonation wasn’t up to the usual standards of Bay Area singers. I appreciated the fact that the singers were willing to go back and work on a tricky bit now and again — more difficult compositions deserve that attention.

All the music was good, but I especially enjoyed the following:—

  • Buckley by Steve Helwig — a new setting of John Newton’s “Bartimeus,” Book 1, no. XCV in Olney Hymns — had a nice sound and was fun to sing; it was good enough that I wanted more verses, and a repeat on the final ten measures
  • Cedar Street by Charles Wells; the interaction between the tenor and bass parts in the sixth and seventh measures were a little challenging, but fun to sing
  • Girard by Gerald Hoffman had a very good “Sacred-Harp-y” sound to it

Some of the music was quite challenging: Lincoln Street by Dan Hertzler included a raised fourth degree of the scale in the bass part which, though it sounded good when we could actually hit that note, was difficult to sing. And The Trumpet was not limited to the pure Denson book sound; some of the music leaned more towards the gospel sound of the Cooper book, such as the fuguing section of Lincoln Street.

But the best song we sang all evening was not in The Trumpet; it was “Leave the Ground” by James, one of the regular singers at the Berkeley weekly singing. James wrote both the words and the music; both words and music were recognizably related to the Sacred Harp idiom, but stretched the idiom in new and delightful ways. I’ll quote just one verse to give you an idea of what I mean:

Now we must all shake hands and go home,
It’s over and done.
Cherubic cars are waiting,
We must drive till morning light,
Cherubic cars are waiting,
We’ll be all right.

The music made wonderful use of repeated unisons. I hope James publishes this somewhere; for lovely though it is, it’s far enough outside the conventions of the Sacred Harp idiom that I doubt The Trumpet will print it. Update: Of course “Leave the Ground” is published on the Web, with sheet music, full text, and funky version with electric guitar accompaniment.

Singing at home

Who sings Sacred Harp?

I had a conversation with Hannah, one of our altos, who has been singing in a grindcore band up until recently, and now gets her music fix from Sacred Harp. We talked about how different people get drawn to the urban revival of Sacred Harp singing. There are the punk rockers. There are the people who love Renaissance and medieval music. There are the old folkies. There are even avant-garde sound artists. Of course there are the church musicians and the people who just like to sing in church. And there are the people who just like Sacred Harp for no particular reason.

We have all these types of people in the Berkeley weekly singing. Some of us fit into more than one category — I first ran into Sacred Harp while attending a folk festival looking for new music to sing with my church choir, so I fit into the church and folk categories. But I’ve also flirted with early music, and I was a punk rocker at one point in my life. It’s fun asking new people when they show up at a Sacred Harp singing — so, what brought you here?

Other local singings

San Francisco singing

I managed to make it to the new monthly singing in San Francisco this afternoon. The church that’s letting us sing (for free!) asked if we could participate in a short ceremony for peace in the neighborhood in the wake of a recent shooting a short distance from the church which resulted in the death of Parrish Broughton.

I didn’t get out of my church as quickly as I had hoped, so I arrived just after the Sacred Harp singers has sung Hallelujah. The indoor part of the ceremony was finished, and I got there just in time to join a processional down the street to where the shooting took place. This being an Episcopalian church, they knew how to do ritual — good vestments, really good incense, talking just enough but not too much — I felt honored to be a part of what they were doing.

We sang again when we got to the site of the shooting. A member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence did a nice ritual of creating a peaceful piece of spray-painted graffiti art on the pavement where the shooting took place. Someone from the neighborhood had brought some holy water, and asked the rector to sprinkle it, which he did, with a nice prayer. Then, somewhat to our surprise, we were asked to sing again. “Um, how about New Britain?” — upon seeing blank looks from the non-singers, “That’s what we call Amazing Grace.” We sang it. Everyone sang along. And the ceremony was done.

Back up at the church, we settled in to the hollow square. There were perhaps 25 singers at the peak of the afternoon, and the singing was really excellent; one of the best local singings I’ve ever attended.

Reading list

Makers of the Sacred Harp

I found a copy of Makers of the Sacred Harp by Warren Steel at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco a few eeks ago, and since then the book has been sitting in our bathroom, and I’ve been dipping into it now and then. It’s an odd book, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

On the one hand, it should be an indispensable reference work for anyone who sings Sacred Harp music from the 1991 Denson edition, very much in the tradition of the various “Companions” to different hymnals. However, usually a hymnal companion will have information on both the authors of the texts as well as the composers. Steel made the odd decision to include very little information about authors of texts, saying this information is widely available in other reference works — but the whole point of a hymnal companion is to have a one-volume reference work. And I wonder how many Sacred Harp singers are going to have access to a collection of biographies of hymn writers — I’m a working minister, and I don’t have such a reference work. So while this is a good reference work for learning about composers, this book is not what I’d consider to be an adequate one-volume reference work.

If this book is not going to be an adequate one-volume reference for the average singer, I’d expect it it to instead be a work aimed at scholars. But I can’t say it is that, either. There is good scholarly work contained in this book, and any scholar who’s interested in Sacred Harp singing will want it. Having said that, there are some bits that are not particularly scholarly, e.g., the chapter on Sacred Harp and the Civil War has too much on the war (material most scholars won’t bother paying attention to, since it’s not based original research), and not enough on the music. Given that Steel de-emphasized authors of texts so much, I expected more scholarly work on the musical aspects of Sacred Harp, and while some of that is in here, there’s not enough to make this a scholarly work per se.

So the book represents something of a compromise between a work for the non-specialist Sacred Harp enthusiast, and a work for scholars; it’s not quite either fish or fowl. But it’s still a book that most Sacred Harp singers will want to own, if for no other reason than to finally learn who Deolph was.

Singing at home


I overheard a bit of a conversation about pitching at tonight’s singing. This prompted a longer conversation with Marsha on the drive home: we know that the pitch at which we sing a tune is lower than the notated pitch, but by how much?

When I got home, I looked through some notes I had made a year ago when I decided to check actual sung pitches on vintage recordings of traditional Southern singings. Here’s what I found:

  • 38b Windham: Notated in E minor, sung in D minor by Alabama Sacred Harp Singing Convention, 1942 Lomax recording.
  • 45t New Britain: Notated in C major, sung at around A major on “Original Sacred Harp”, 2007 Bibletone re-release of on older recording (1960s).
  • 47b Idumea: Notated in A minor, sung in E minor, by Lookout Mountain Convention, 1968.
  • 49b Mear: Notated in G major, sung in E major on “Fasola – 53 Shape Note Folk Hymns,” 1970 Smithsonian recording.

I had also checked the pitch on one contemporary traditional Southern singing:

  • 39t Detroit: Notated in E minor, sung halfway between D and D# minor on “In Sweetest Union Join,” United Sacred Harp Musical Association, 2003.

So as a rough average, traditional sung pitch is about a third below notated pitch — but actual sung pitches could range from a minor second below notated pitch, to a fifth below notated pitch.

Update: Marsha checked the entire “In Sweetest Union Join” recording and found most songs pitched a major or minor third below notated pitch, though one song was pitched above notated pitch (!), and one song as low as a diminished fourth below.