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Sacred Harp at the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival

A telegraphic account based on my notes:

Twenty singers showed up to perform at the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival. I know, I know, Sacred Harp singing isn’t a performance tradition, but once in a while we’re asked to perform, and this was one of those occasions.

Due to some behind-the-scene complications (having to do with other performances at this concert), there was no warm-up room available for us. But Sacred Harp singers can sing anywhere, so we warmed up by singing a dozen or so songs in the lobby of the concert hall, much to the delight of several early-arriving concert-goers.

We tried to make this performance as much like a singing as possible. Susan Fetcho arranged us in a modified hollow square: trebles in a line stage right, altos in a line stage left, with basses and tenors forming a line facing the audience — something like this:

Sacred Harp singers on stage

The “X” marks where the leaders stood, with their backs to the audience. This arrangement allowed us singers to hear each other, allowed the leaders to bring in the parts if they chose to do so, and projected the singing out towards the audience.

We had an “arranging committee” who called out the names of the leaders, just as at a convention. I even took minutes, which follow:


This special singing was held at the Music Recital Hall, University of California at Santa Cruz. The business meeting was held prior to the singing, and the following officers were elected or appointed to serve: Shelley Phillips and Janet Herman, co-chairpersons; Janet Herman, treasurer; Dan Harper, secretary.
Leaders: Ed Rice 178; Susan Fetcho 142; Terry Moore 86; David Fetcho 344; Shelly Phillips 183; Janet Herman 228.
The secretary recorded 20 singers present, from the Berkeley, Palo Alto, and Santa Cruz local singings. The treasurer reported that the $400 honorarium will be devoted to buying new loaner books.
Co-chairpersons: Shelley Phillips and Janet Herman–Secretary: Dan Harper


To remain true to our tradition, we did NOT take a bow when we finished singing — we just walked off stage. This felt to me like the applause was directed at the tradition, not at the singers who happened to be there passing on the tradition at this particular singing.

The response from people in the audience was positive. From comments I heard, audience members especially liked the fuguing tunes. Two or three people came up to us after the concert and wanted to know how they could join in singing with us — this, I feel, made up for the awkwardness of singing Sacred Harp in a concert setting!

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Info about the upcoming SC Baroque Festival

(Check the Bay Area email lists to find out date and time, and contact info for Shelley, Janet, or Dan. This info is posted here as an online reference.)

Concert organizer says leave your valuables in the car.

We’ll have a room where we can sing a few tunes and get warmed up — time on stage starting at about 6:15 to get organized — then back to the warm-up room and sing some more before the concert. Yes, we’ll have loaner books in case your forget yours.

We will sing the following, in this order, with these leaders:
Africa, 178 — leader Ed Rice
Stratfield, 142 — leader Susan Fetcho
Poland, 86 — leader Terry Moore
Rainbow, 344 — leader David Fetcho
Greenwich, 183 — leader Shelley Phillips
Marlorough, 228 — leader Janet Herman

Shelley will key all tunes for us, for consistency.

If you have clothing that approximates clothing at typical Southern singings, great. If you don’t, wear what you have — just keep the focus on the singing and the tradition, rather than the clothing.

We go on after Hank Bradley, an old-time fiddler (whom Janet says is really good).

Finally — yeah — this is all kinda weird and different from our usual practice. If you’ve come to the practice singings where we ran through the tunes, you heard the discussions about how this can only be an approximation of a “real” singing. But what the heck — we’re getting $400 for doing this concert, which will go towards buying much-needed loaner books for both Denson and Shenandoah Harmony (the money will go through Community Music School in Santa Cruz, a 501(c)3 nonprofit). Besides, we plan to do some “real” singing before the concert — we’ll have that warm-up room, why waste the opportunity?

And if you want to join us at the last minute, feel free, just let Dan or Janet or Shelley know you’re coming!

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SF Free Folk Festival

Google Maps told me it was going to take 34 minutes to get to the site of the San Francisco Free Folk Festival. I should have known better; with the heavy traffic on 19th St., it took me an hour. And when the dust finally settled, I didn’t walk into the Sacred Harp workshop until fifteen minutes before it was supposed to end.

But from what I heard of it, it was a good class and a good singing. There were experienced singers in every part, which helped a lot: Terry and Kate in the trebles; Gary, Linda, and Jennie in the tenors; Peter and Ned in the basses; and Mary in the altos (if I’ve forgotten anyone, forgive me, and leave a note in the comments). In addition to the experienced singers, there were six or eight trebles, maybe eight tenors, half a dozen basses, and half a dozen altos. Now let’s hope that some of those new singers — many of whom sounded pretty good! — come join us for local singings and all-day singings.

Then when the Sacred Harp workshop was over, I had to hop in my car and drive to Hayward for a friend’s ordination, so I didn’t even get to enjoy anything else at the festival.

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Singing with Coleman Barks

Shelley Phillips and Barry Phillips provided the music to accompany Coleman Barks as he read from his translations of Rumi last night at the First Congregational Church of Santa Cruz. Barks grew up in the south and loves shape note singing, so Shelley asked local Sacred Harp singers if they’d come and sing two tunes.

It’s a long way from San Mateo to Santa Cruz, and Carol and I got to the church about ten minutes before the reading was to begin. All the church’s parking spaces were full, and the school parking lot next door was full, too. We parked on the street.

As soon as I walked into the church, someone spotted the maroon oblong Sacred Harp book in my hand, and sent me to sit in one of the front three rows. I recognized Janet and one or two other singers, but no one else — it’s a long drive, and Santa Cruz singers don’t get up to the Bay Area to sing much.

Coleman Barks began reading. I could hear the cadences of Southern preaching in his voice. Shelley and Barry played — Shaker tunes, Sacred Harp tunes, Bach — as he read. People who study liturgy talk about the continuum from ordinary speech through heightened speech, singing, and finally wordless music. As Southern preachers often do, Barks moved along this continuum from ordinary speech to heightened speech; Shelley and Barry Phillips moved along the other end of the continuum, singing and music.

We Sacred Harp singers sang right after the intermission. Sacred Harp singing moves between heightened speech and singing, so we occupied the middle ground of that continuum from ordinary speech to music. Shelley led us in no. 178 Africa; Barks read one of his poems that mentions Sacred Harp singing, then we sang no. 59 Holy Manna (vv. 1, 3, 5). Barks came to sing with us on Holy Manna, standing in the bass section a couple of people to my left.

I think that was about the deadest place I’ve ever sung Sacred Harp in: I could hear a little of what the tenors were singing, and I could hear the bass I was standing next to, and I could hear Shelley, who was standing facing us; and that’s about all I could hear. So it wasn’t the ecstatic experience Sacred Harp singing can be when you can hear and respond to all the other singers; but it was probably a more musical experience for those who weren’t singing. When you’re singing for an audience, I think Sacred Harp tends to morph from an ecstatic form of heightened speech into musical singing — which, honestly, is a kindness to the audience; ecstasy doesn’t sound so good when you’re not singing along with it. Carol was siting out out in the audience, and she said we sounded fine.

Then Barks continued reading his translations of Rumi: poems of ecstatic and transcendent encounters with the divine; poems about mystic experiences, experiences which cannot be adequately communicated to an audience.

Cross-posted here.

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Easter eggs and Sacred Harp

Once again this year, Chris Thorman and Carolyn Deacy invited Sacred Harp singers to Carolyn’s house to make traditional Ukranian Easter eggs. The process uses multiple dye baths, and masking the design out by heating beeswax. Here’s Scott putting a wax resist onto an egg that has already been dyed light blue:


My partner Carol took the photo above, and the next photo showing our completed eggs (the egg shown in the first photograph is the lowest egg on the lefthand plate):


We sang a few tunes Sacred Harp tunes while we were waiting for the final coat of varnish to dry, and in true Sacred Harp style we did share a potluck dinner. Thank you to Carolyn for hosting us, and to Chris for providing materials, tools, and patient teaching!

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Trumpet singing

I managed to change my work schedule so I could attend tonight’s singing from vol. 2 no. 3 of The Trumpet, and I was glad I did: this was a particularly good issue with lots of good music. Fifteen of us gathered in Carolyn’s living room in San Francisco, with three each of trebles, altos, and basses, and the rest in the tenor section; we had some very good singers in the class, so all the tunes got a good reading.

Since I’m a big fan of the New England School, of course the highlight of the singing was the anthem “The Radiant Band of Music” by Stephen Jenks. Jenks had left the treble part unfinished at his death, and in 2001 Nikos Pappas completed the tune. The added treble part was very sensitively done, very “Jenksian” if you will. I love singing Jenks: he can be quirky and odd at times, but his tunes are satisfying to sing. Some of his later tunes seem a little too much influenced by Lowell Mason and the Better Music Boys; and on the last page of this five-page anthem, Jenks uses conventional chord progressions that are definitely too reminiscent of Lowell Mason. But in the four pages before that, there was enough New England School quirkiness to satisfy me, including: odd time signature changes (e.g., mm. 18-21); descending unisons / parallel octaves that break apart (mm. 22-25); antiphonal singing over drones (top system, p. 94); etc. Great fun to sing!

Among the fuguing tunes, I particularly enjoyed Contrition by Rebecca Wright; when you’re sight-singing, it’s hard to listen to the other parts, but the bass part sounded just right to my ears. I also enjoyed singing the plain tune Bremen by Wade Kotter; I especially like the dotted quarter-eighth note slur in m. 10, which felt just exactly right. And Hurricane Creek by D. W. Steel was a blast to sing — my only complaint is that it needs another verse. I also think it needs to be sung with an unwritten repeat going back to m. 12; you don’t want the tune to end, and I want the leader to have the option of taking the class back to sing the ending one more time.

Will Fitzgerald, one of the editors of The Trumpet, was at this singing. At the end of the singing, I told him that I thought this was perhaps the best issue yet. Full disclosure: one of my tunes is in this issue, but since I’m always unhappy with my own tunes, its inclusion would tend to make me like this issue less. Thus it’s possible that this issue of The Trumpet is better than I think it is.

A big thanks to the editors and production team who put The Trumpet together!

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Northfield as early music

In other news from the alto bench of the Berkeley weekly singing, Marsha led a singing school at the Madison (Wisconsin) Early Music Festival. Here’s a video of Marsha leading the class in no. 155 Northfield:

The room is kind of echo-y for Sacred Harp, but they sound really good!

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Final thoughts from Camp Fasola

Yesterday afternoon, on the last day of Camp Fasola, half a dozen of us were sitting on a porch at Camp McDowell; I was the only non-Southerner in the group. We were idly talking over what we had done at camp, and one of the others brought up the fact that sometimes Camp Fasola various people would sit in a lesson showing that they knew more than the others, or even more than whomever was teaching the lesson. He said, “It’s like a — like — ” and then he stopped, unable to find a suitable way of putting it. I said drily, “Up in New England, we call it a pissing match.” Everyone laughed, but we went on to refine the idea further: a sense of competition often emerges among Sacred Harp singers.

Why is this so? Why do we Sacred Harp singers get competitive at times?

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Camp Fasola, community singing

Camp Fasola culminated in a two hour singing tonight; local singers were invited to attend, and a dozen or more were in attendance.

Tonight’s singing was in the Chapel of St. Francis at Camp McDowell. The interior is mostly wood and glass, which was good for the sound of our singing; but the ceiling is very high and steeply pitched, and the room has a long reverberation time, which was not so good. I sat on the left end of the front bench of the bass section for an hour, and I could hear fairly well from there — more precisely, I could hear the trebles (since they were directly across from me) and the altos (since they were to my immediate left), and I could hear the front bench tenors, and above all that a general hum of singing. It was a good sound, a bright and exciting sound, but not what you’d call a clear and distinct sound.

Many of tonight’s leaders set pretty fast tempos. It may be that the room pushed us in that direction; or more likely it was pent-up excitement and energy being released at the end of the last full day of camp. I know when it was my turn to lead, I set a tempo that was a little faster than I had intended. Sometimes you just get caught up in the mood of a singing, whether you mean to or not.

There has been a teen conference of some sort going on while we have been here at Camp McDowell. Their leaders asked us to sing for their evening worship service tonight, so after the community singing, we walked over to sing for them. The teens were sitting on the ground completely silent, each one holding a candle. We walked up in silence, sang two verses of both 47b and 45t, then walked away in silence. I don’t know what it felt like for them, but it was a magical moment for me: singing at night under a starry sky for a hundred or teens all lit by candlelight, then walking away leaving silence behind us.

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Thoughts from Dan Brittain

At Camp Fasola this morning in a workshop called “Sacred Harp Harmony and Style,” Dan Brittain kept saying things that were eminently quotable. I tried to write down a few of the things he said:

In response to several questions about the “right” way to do things: “Respect the local tradition.” And once he added that you’ve got to travel around and listen to how people sing.

More on the importance of listening: “You’ve got to listen to each other in order for it to sound like Sacred Harp. You can’t just sing loud — and not listen to the people around you.”

After singing no. 288 White: “Moderate speed should be the rule. You can hear a lot more of those harmonies. You can sing fast, but that should be the exception.”