Other events


Susan from the altos and Shelby from the trebles have been singing with the Kitka Vocal Ensemble’s Community Chorus. The Kitka Community Chorus was about to do its first gig, performing Balkan a capella music, but they didn’t have quite enough music for a full concert. So Susan and Shelby said the Berkeley Sacred Harp singers would fill out the evening with some participatory singing.

My sweetheart Carol and I watched as people came in to the upstairs room at the Finnish Brotherhood Hall on Chestnut Street in Berkeley. The Kitka Community Chorus was about eighteen women, and they brought family and friends. About ten of us Sacred Harp signers showed up, and I noticed with relief there there were going to be at least two of us on a part. By the time the Kitka Community Chorus started singing, the room was full.

“These women are good!” I thought to myself. Great intonation and dynamics, solid group discipline, and all the singers had great individual voices. They blended well together, and created a nice rich sound. Sure, I could kvetch that the Georgian song they did didn’t sound like it used exactly that weirdo scale the Georgians use, but the chorus still sounded fantastic.

When it was our turn to sing, Susan and her husband David gave a nice brief intro to the tradition, informed the audience that this was a participatory tradition rather than a performance tradition, and formed us up into a hollow square to make that point stronger. We sang 38b Windham, then Susan invited anyone who wanted to come up and sing with us, or just stand in the middle of the hollow square and soak up the sound. Carol, who stayed in the back of the hall said that when Susan said that people could come up and sing along, two teenaged girls sitting near her said “Yes!” quietly to each other. Lots of people came up to sing with us, and half a dozen stood in the middle of the hollow square.

Susan stopped us after five or so songs, which was about right. Left to our own devices, we would have sung the rest of the evening, and annoyed everyone who wanted to get at the refreshments, and tell the Kitka Community Chorus members how great they were.

Carol and I were standing around talking with David, who told us about the old-time Sacred Harp singer who said, “I’d travel five hundred miles to sing Sacred Harp, but I wouldn’t walk across the street to listen to it.” Carol and I laughed; that about summed it up. Or, to be more polite about the same point:–Earlier in the evening, David and Carl and I had been talking about how it’s impossible to commodify Sacred Harp singing — if you commodify it, I insisted, then it isn’t Sacred Harp music, and that’s why I sing it, because you can’t commodify it.

Singing at home


At the break, I turned to chat with a new singer who had joined the basses. As usual, I asked him what brought him to sing Sacred Harp.

“Well, I really like to sing Maori music,” he said.

“Maori?” I said. I wasn’t sure that’s what he said, and didn’t see the connection.

“Maori, you know, from New Zealand,” he said. He explained that he couldn’t find anywhere in the Bay area to sing Maori music, and a friend had suggested that maybe Sacred Harp would be a possible substitute.

I’ve heard of people coming to Sacred Harp singing from Renaissance music, bluegrass, punk rock, folk music — but never before from Maori singing.

Other events


It was kind of a strange place to be singing. Alemany Farm nestles on the side of a hill right next to the freeway, a small urban farm serving to educate San Franciscans about food security issues. It was a regular work day for volunteers today, but SF Refresh was also presenting some workshops on whole body care (and composting; I wasn’t quite sure where the composting workshop came in). We were asked to give a workshop on Sacred Harp, the thought being that the music is a kind of healing music.

I got lost and arrived late. There were eight of us regular singers from the San Francisco and Berkeley singings. In the forty minutes I was there, another five or six people came and joined in: one person wearing a t-shirt that I thought was from Alemany Farm, one person whom I later learned sang opera, a man from New Zealand and a woman who appeared to be his sweetheart, a woman wearing a snappy fedora, and maybe one other that I’m forgetting. I thought it would be far more difficult to hear each other, especially with the wind, but we were on a small stone patio, and of course we were loud, so it wasn’t so bad — though when we were done, i realized I had pushed my voice more than I had realized.

It was different, singing at an urban farm. I’m not sure we accomplished much in the way of healing or whole body care, but half a dozen people had fun singing with us, and some of the volunteer farm workers who walked by seemed to enjoy listening to us. I would have to say it was one of the more unusual venues — standing in the middle of an urban farm — in which I’ve sung.

Singing at home

Hooking new singers

Quite a few people came into the singing late tonight, mostly people I didn’t recognize, and most of them sat in the tenor section as is recommended for new singers. But I didn’t realize how many of them there were until I stood up to lead a song: we had four tenor benches set up with three to four people sitting in each bench; call it fourteen tenors. I looked at them with surprise and said, “Boy, there are a lot of you.” Plus we had two new singers out of half a dozen in the alto section, and our usual half a dozen basses and four or five trebles: somewhere close to thirty people total.

We had good strong singers in each section, so it was a good singing, and at least the newcomers got to hear what Sacred Harp singing sounds like. But how many of them will come back? In the urban revival of Sacred Harp, we often call our local singings “practice singings,” but you have to know the basics of how to sing Sacred Harp music before you can practice. In Berkeley, we have a monthly learner’s group, which is fabulous, but that only happens once a month. I don’t think we are particularly good at hooking new people who have little or no singing experience — most of our experienced singers in the urban revival either knew how to read music, or were pretty darned good musicians, before they ever showed up at one of our singings. Yes, there are exceptions — and my sense of those people is that they have a greater than ordinary innate ability, and a strong will.

I have to think that any viable Sacred Harp community in the urban revival either has to plan for at least one serious singing school each year, or has to gather the bulk of its singers from from other communities of experienced musicians. It’s no accident that many of the urban revival Sacred Harp communities are affiliated with a university, sometimes with a for-credit course in Sacred Harp singing like the Sacred Harp class at Brown University that funnels singers into the Providence, R.I., local singing — or are close to a community of musicians, like Norumbega Harmony which sponsors an annual singing school at the New England Folk Festival. (Or check out this event for music educators.)

I’ll be curious to see how many of tonight’s new singers return, and how long they stick with it. I hope they all come back — it would be great fun to sing with 30 people each week, instead of a score or two dozen.

Singing at home


This has nothing to do with what happened at tonight’s regular practice singing, but…

I’ve been dreaming about Sacred Harp singing recently. These are not dramatic dreams: nothing really happens except that I’m sitting in the second bench of the bass section in a local singing, and we sing. I wish I could remember what we sing, but I never do.

God only knows what a psychoanalyst would make of this.

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.