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All-day singings & conventions

Macedonia Church Singing, Macedonia, Alabama

We had to drive up from Birmingham, so I arrived about half an hour late to the annual singing at the Macedonia Church in Macedonia, Alabama. Carol dropped me off, and drove off to walk through Cathedral Caverns while I was singing.

From the moment I walked in the door, it was obvious that these people had sung together for a long time — generations, really. You can tell when a group of singers knows each other well; there’s a unity of purpose that comes with long acquaintanceship, and that can only come with lots of time spent singing together.

I wanted to sit in the back of the bass section and mostly listen, but there were only five other basses, so there wasn’t a place for me to hide; I had to sing, though compared to them I was rhythmically sloppy. And they sang faster than I was used to, so I missed some eighth notes here and there. But perhaps that’s the best way to listen: sit in your section, try to keep up with the people next to you, keep your voice down, and listen to how the other sections interact with yours.

As people were called up to lead a lesson (most leaders did two songs in a lesson), I began to realize that there were an awful lot of Iveys and Woottens in this singing. Or to put it another way, I was singing with Sacred Harp aristocracy, so I hoped to sit in the back bench of the tenors and not lead a song; I don’t much like to lead in any case.

But after the morning recess, the basses got me to sit on the front bench for a while, and when the chair asked me to lead a lesson, I said I guessed I would. Not that I led the lesson; the front bench of the tenors led the lesson. The second tune I led took off at such a fast clip that I just waved my hand up and down, and hung on for dear life until the end.

At lunch, I wound up sitting and talking with one of the basses. I said I was surprised that there were so few basses; only about half a dozen of us, when there were a good forty or fifty tenors. (There were perhaps seven altos, and maybe eight trebles.) He said it was a little surprising, and hadn’t always been that way. Then we got to talking about universalism — turns out he’s in the universalist camp, theologically speaking, and is a little disappointed in Rob Bell for not quite going all the way — and that conversation consumed us for the rest of lunch.

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All-day singings & conventions

National Sacred Harp Convention, pt. 2

It seemed to me that there were more younger people on the last day of the National Sacred Harp Convention; today was not quite the sea of gray heads that I saw yesterday. Not that there’s anything wrong with gray hair; that’s now officially my hair color on my driver’s license. But I like it best when there’s a more even distribution of ages.

After the first break, two girls in their early teens stood up together to lead the class. The tenor front bench reminded them to announce the number of the tune they were leading, and once they got the pitch, they started right in. When they had finished, I heard someone from the tenor front bench, and someone else from further back in the tenors, say the same thing in approving voices: Good job.” The girls smiled as they walked out of the hollow square.

Then a middle-aged woman from the altos was called, and she brought an older teenaged girl with her into the hollow square. The girl stood where I couldn’t see her, so I don’t know how well she led, but I do know that she was smiling pretty broadly when the tune was over.

A little later on, a young man, perhaps in his early twenties, was called into the hollow square and invited an older woman to stand there and lead with him. He obviously knew what he was doing. And there you have something of a progression of ages: two young teens who need each other’s support, and an older teenager who didn’t mind having an adult nearby when leading; and then the young adult who is more competent than some of us older adults.

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All-day singings & conventions

National Sacred Harp Convention

According to today’s The Birmingham News:

About 200 people attended the first day of the 32nd annual National Sacred Harp Singing Convention on Thursday at First Christian Church on Valleydale Road, keeping alive a tradition that dates back centuries. …

Sacred harp [sic] never died out in Alabama and has experienced a world-wide renaissance. A group of five people from the United Kingdom sang Thursday in the convention. [p. 6B]

Early on, one of the elders of the convention (I didn’t catch his name) stood up to lead a lesson, and prefaced it by saying that things had gotten a little out of synch yesterday. He suggested, earnestly and forthrightly, that the class should look at the leader as much as they look at their books. He also mentioned something about someone who led two songs in a row yesterday. Apparently by missing the first day of the convention, I missed a certain amount of turmoil.

At lunch time, I wound up sitting at a table with two of those people from the U.K., along with a woman from Ireland, a man from Chattanooga, a woman from Massachusetts, a man from Knoxville, and Leland who sings with the Berkeley local singing in the summer. The Irishwoman, the Chattanoogan, and the two people from Yorkshire had all attended Camp Fasola earlier in the week, and had been at the convention yesterday.

“It sounds much better today,” said one of the campers. “Yes, there were problems with the front bench yesterday,” said another, adding that the people on the front bench were not together. Then there was cheerful talk of checking one’s ego at the door, and comments about how one person on the front bench still wasn’t quite in synch. “You’ve got to watch the leader,” said one, “after all, in a class this big, they’re the only ones most people can see.”

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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:

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All-day singings & conventions

19th Annual Sacred Harp Singing Convention, Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon

The Portland convention opened this year with a sort of singing school. Tom Malone of Molloy College taught us about appropriate emphasis for different time signatures. He was an engaging speaker, and seemed very knowledgable. His presentation reminded me of countless such presentations in the urban folk revival, where an expert tells us urbanites how to properly perform music that comes from a cultural and geographic location far from where we are sitting. Tom Malone told us how Elmer Kitchens was a Primitive Baptist preacher who knew his Bible and knew how to properly emphasize the poetry of the songs he wrote. Most of us urban revivalists never feel quite secure in our knowledge of proper performance techniques, and we depend on such lectures and workshops to keep us properly in the tradition.

I noticed that when the singing started, immediately after the singing school, everyone sang rather sweetly, as if singing in a choir. But after an hour had gone by, the singing had gotten free and even wild. It’s good to know the tradition, but knowledge alone isn’t enough; if the Spirit isn’t moving the singers, the singing falls flat.

At lunch time, I ate with the chair of the convention. It turned out that we are both church-goers, and our conversation drifted away from Sacred Harp to some extent. We both agreed that we dislike praise bands in church. She made a good point about projecting the words to hymns on a screen in front of the worship space: those projected words give you no information about tune or rhythm, and just a little bit of knowledge about reading music can make it so much easier to sing. “If I were going to church tomorrow, and I can’t because I’ll have to be here, I’d go late,” she said. “So you could miss the praise band and the praise songs,” I said, and we both laughed.

We talked about how white the singers were at the Portland convention; she was one of the few people of color in the room. “I don’t understand why it’s so white here,” I said. “Well, I come from the Black church tradition, and we didn’t have any of these [pointing to her Sacred Harp book] at my church,” she said. “But neither did we!” I said. “I remember some Lowell Mason tunes, and of course we had Coronation — I think everyone had Coronation — but nothing else from The Sacred Harp.”

We didn’t come to any conclusions, but both of us like the music very much. “I tell everyone about it, because I think everyone should sing it,” she said.

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All-day singings & conventions

Jolly Memorial all-day singing

The Jolly Memorial All-day Singing is held in a building in Old Poway Park in Poway, California, and sponsored by San Diego area Sacred Harp singers. There were more than 40 singers who came at some time during the day, but the most I counted at any one time was 36. I was told that it was a lighter turnout than usual. There were three of us down from the San Francisco Bay area, and several from Los Angeles, but I believe all those who came were from California. At the end of the day, the secretary of the singing told us that 28 people led a total of 70 songs; most of those who led songs led three songs.

Although there wasn’t a large number of people, the singing was loud, accurate, and joyful. It seemed to me that a few strong voices pretty much carried each section, with the rest of us filling out the sound. The resonance of the space also helped; with a wood floor and ceiling, the sound was mellow and lively.

As with any singing, there were some minor local peculiarities. The singing did not open with “Holy Manna,” nor did it close with “Parting Hand” (the closing song was “Christian’s Farewell,” which I have heard used to close local singing sessions). One person pitched all the songs (with the exception of two or three people who pitched their own songs), and occasionally she used a tuning fork as she was deciding what pitch to give. No collection was taken, since there was no charge for using the building — typically the biggest single cost for an all-day singing — and the chairman of the singing paid for whatever other minor incidental expenses arose. There were two business sessions, one at the beginning of the day to formally elect the officers (who were already carrying out their duties), and one at the end of the day for resolutions, etc.

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All-day singings & conventions

10th annual Pioneer Valley All-Day Singing

The 10th annual Pioneer Valley All-Day Singing took place today in the parish hall of the First Congregational Church of Sunderland, Massachusetts. This singing was sponsored by the Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Community. The Western Mass. Sacred Harp community has the reputation of tending to be a youngish and hip crowd, with vigorous and energetic singers; and they have the reputation of having good turnouts at their singings. I saw evidence of all these things at this year’s Pioneer Valley All-Day Singing.

The average age appeared to be fairly young, with a good selection of tattoos and piercings; and dinner on the grounds featured a good selection of vegan dishes. All this was in keeping with the hip culture of central Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. The singing was indeed vigorous and energetic, and many of the songs were taken at quite a brisk tempo. It will be interesting to see the minutes when they are published, to see just how many songs we got through in the day; it felt as if there were a few more than average. The singers filled the room; the bass section had only one or two empty chairs during most of the day; the altos expanded back into the section of the room where the food was; the tenor section was well-filled; the treble section was perhaps the least full.

I had forgotten how stand-offish New Englanders can be; the only person who talked to me at length was Swiss-German, not a New Englander at all; a few other people noticed that my name tag said I was from California, commented on that, and then ended the conversation. The Western Mass. folks have the reputation of being very welcoming, but that must be in comparison to the general New England culture — but then, I attended one monthly singing in New England for 8 straight months and no one ever initiated a conversation with me, so by comparison the Western Mass. folks were positively chatty. On the other hand, compared to the Minnesota singing I attended last week, Western Mass. was less chatty.