Reading list

Original words to 117, “Babylon Is Fallen”

The 1991 Denson edition of The Sacred Harp has no attribution for the words of 117 “Babylon Is Fallen.” But according to Warren Steele in Makers of the Sacred Harp, the original words, the words originally appeared in a Shaker hymn book, Millennial Praises, Containing a Collection of Gospel Hymns …Adapted to the Day of Christ’s Second Appearing, which was printed in Hancock, Massachusetts, in 1813. More detail on the origina of the words is offered on a post by “Burke” in this thread on the Mudcat Web site:

…The rest of this [post] is will be summary of the article:
G. W. Williams, “Babylon is Fallen: The Story of a North American Hymn,” The Hymn, Volume 44, April 1993, pp 31-35….

There is no author listed in Millennial Praises. The attribution of the hymn to Richard McNemar appears to be from an article by Daniel W. Patterson in Shaker Quarterly, v.18.

The first stanza of the text appears in a manuscript of tunes from the Enfield, Conn. [Shaker] community and may date to as early as 1810. The original 6 verses are clearly refering to images in Revelation 17-19. “It is clear … that McNemar knew the Revelation passage thoroughly and was closely following its pattern and its precepts.” The text was reprinted in an 1833 Shaker hymnal, but not in later ones.

It was reprinted in non-Shaker books, usually with variations on words, from the 1820’s on. The first verse always remains substantially the same, except for the reference to “the distant coasts of Shinar.” Shinar did not mean much more in the 19th cent. than it does to us today. It means “Babylon in its fullest extent” and is used in the Old Testament to refer to Babylon. [See this article in the online Jewish Encyclopedia for more info. — ed.] Always associated with impiety in some way, the substitution of “courts of Zion” or “our Shiloh” substantially changes the meaning of the second part of the verse. It transforms “cries of despair from the citizens of the ravished city to shouts of triumph from God’s favored people.”

The third verse from the Sacred Harp version was first published in William Houser’s The Olive Leaf in 1878. This was also the book where Chute’s tune was first published so the version most well know now traces most directly to it. Either Houser or Chute may have written the third verse; there’s not really any way to know. This new verse changes the tone of the hymn to emphasizing rejoicing in triumph rather than the desolation in destruction of the original.

Before 1878 at least 2 different tunes were paired with the words in different publications. All apparently suffered from the problem that the chorus does not follow the same 8,7 meter of the verses. The 12,10 of the chorus were somehow forced into the 8,7 pattern of the tunes used.

William Houser first published a six verse version with one of these problem tunes in The Hesperian Harp, 1852. When Houser published it in The Olive Leaf in 1878 with the now familiar tune he headed the entry with the attribution: “Prof. Wm. E. Chute, of Ontario. Prof. Chute composed this tune out of an old theme, and is too modest to claim any originality, but I do it for him.–W.H.” The “old theme” may be Sons of Sorrow [link to words and score of this song].

For completists, here are the Shaker words:

Other local singings

San Francisco Sacred Harp goes monthly

This just in:

As promised, San Francisco Sacred Harp is moving to monthly, our first meeting is February 20.

Sunday, February 20, 2011
1:30 to 4:30
St Aidan’s Episcopal Church
101 Gold Mine Drive (x Diamond Heights Boulevard)
San Francisco, CA 94131

Public transportation: BART to Glen Park BART, 52 MUNI bus to the church.
For driving directions and additional public transportation see:
Parking in the Safeway parking lot is allowed.

Info: Julian Damashek at juliandamashek AT gmail DOT com

Hooray for Julian and Carolyn Deacy for getting San Francisco Sacred Harp up and running again after the loss of the long-term venue on Fair Oaks Street in San Francisco. It’s exciting that it’s going to be monthly now instead of quarterly. (Alas, I won’t be able to go, since I work on Sunday afternoons.)

Singing at home

More voices

A relatively big turnout this evening: before the break, there were perhaps a dozen tenors, five basses, six or seven altos, and half a dozen trebles (I say “perhaps” because several singers kept shuttling between the different sections). The singing was strong; it was fun to have that many people.

After the break, quite a few people had to go home, and our numbers dropped down to four or five in each section. It’s easier to hear individual voices with the smaller group, and easier to hear all the parts. The bigger the singing, the better the sound — no doubt about that. But as much as I prefer that bigger sound, my singing improves more when I sing in a smaller group: I can hear the other singers better, hear how my part interacts with the other voices, hear my own mistakes and hear the mistakes of others.

Other events

“Awake, My Soul”

City Church of San Francisco sponsored a showing of the Sacred Harp documentary “Awake My Soul” this evening (they showed the one-hour cut, not the full four-hour documentary). A good number of Bay Area Sacred Harp singers showed up. Matt and Erica Hinton were both present, and Matt Hinton answered questions from the audience after the film. One of our local singers asked Matt Hinton why the documentary focused on the big conventions, and Hinton gave several answers:– first, from a film maker’s point of view, local singings don’t film particularly well; then too, the sound produced by a big singing simply sounds better.

But the most interesting reason from my point of view is simply that Georgia, where the Hintons live and did much of the filming, is in the heartland of Sacred Harp singing where there is a convention within driving distance nearly every week of the year. He said that for those of us who live outside this heartland, a convention is a big deal that only we only get to experience a few times a year; thus for us, the local or practice singing looms large in importance. This is another way in which Sacred Harp singing of the urban revival outside the South winds up being a substantially different experience than traditional singing.

Reading list

Bylaws and tradition

We’ve been working on setting up Bay Area Sacred Harp as an unincorporated association; up until now, money for conventions and all-day singings got ran through checking accounts of an individual member of BASH, which is not an ideal situation for anyone. California state law allows for unincorporated associations — an easy and cheap way to set up a group entity that legally can have a bank account.

I was one of the people who helped draft the bylaws. We tried to balance the traditions of Sacred Harp singings against the need for fiscal and organizational protection. So, for example, most Sacred Harp business meetings take place during an all-day singing or convention, and everyone present is automatically a member. But what do you do if the organization needs to hold a special business meeting in between annual conventions? — an unlikely occurrence, but a possibility that should be allowed for. And how can you provide at least some protection from the possibility that unscrupulous people could take over control of the organization? — also unlikely but such takeovers have happened to other too-trusting nonprofits. I’m not sure we got the balance just right, but I do feel that managed to favor tradition to some extent over other considerations.

(Draft bylaws are online at the BASH Web site.)

Singing at home

More verses

For the past few days, “I’m on My Journey Home,” no. 345, has been running through my head. So of course I had to lead it tonight. The problem is that it is too short to be satisfying, even by including an unwritten repeat on the chorus. I wish more verses had been printed with it. “Journey Home,” no. 111, is the same poetry but with two additional verses; I have to wonder what prompted some editor to include three verses with one tune, and only two verses with the other tune.

Singing at home

Two days after Christmas

There were a good number of us singing today, even though it was two days after Christmas. We had one singer join us who usually can’t sing Monday nights because he sings with a choir that rehearses on Monday nights. One of the things I love about our Sacred Harp group is that we sing every Monday night, no matter what. I’ve been in choirs that don’t sing in the weeks around Christmas and New Year’s, that take the summers off, etc. I don’t want to take weeks off; I like to sing every week; actually, I have an almost physical need to sing every week.

Singing at home

Money and the Sacred Harp spirit

The Church Divinity School of the Pacific allows our Sacred Harp group to use their chapel for no charge. But we try to give them a donation at the end of each calendar year as an expression of our gratitude for welcoming us into such a beautiful singing space. I agreed to take on raising the money this year. Last week’s class, which was somewhat smaller than usual, contributed $94; this week’s class, which was large for us (about 27 people, by my rough count), with quite a few people who weren’t present last week, contributed $221; notification via email brought about $50 of promised contributions. As of now, total contribution from our Sacred Harp community will be $365.

What I liked best about our community’s contribution is that those of us who could give more did so; those who couldn’t afford to give much (grad students, underemployed or unemployed people) gave nothing or a token amount. We are not like some choirs I’ve belonged to, where you have to pay a set amount to attend rehearsals; Sacred Harp singers want everyone to sing, no matter what their financial status. For me, this is another example of the truly inclusive spirit of Sacred Harp singing.

Singing at home

No altos

For the first 45 minutes of tonight’s singing, there were no altos. We had close to 20 singers, so it’s not like there was a light turnout; it was just one of those quirks of fate that no altos showed up. It was interesting to hear four-part songs without an alto part: some songs sounded empty, some sounded more Sacred-Harp-y.

I got to thinking: wouldn’t it be fun to sing to think of songs in the book that were originally written without an alto part? But what were they? I tried to sing while madly paging through the index. Distress — wasn’t Distress originally written with only three parts? I couldn’t remember. But Devotion, I was quite sure Devotion appeared in William Walker’s Southern Harmony with only three parts. But was that the first time Devotion appeared in print? I thought it probably was.

I was all ready to lead Devotion. But then one of our best alto singers arrived, 45 minutes late. When my turn arrived to lead a song, I passed.

Replaces a post that disappeared during problems with my Web hosting service.

New compositions Singing at home

Advent song: “San Juan Bautista”

Another of the songs I presented this evening during the “other book” singing in Berkeley. Although there are Christmas songs in The Sacred Harp, there aren’t really any Advent songs; this is my attempt to write an Advent song. The text is Mark 1.2-3 from the King James version of the Bible. Although Isaiah 40 might seem to make more sense as a text for Advent, the prose in the KJV translation of Mark 1.2-3 was just too perfect to pass up, and preachers are wont to use bits of Mark 1 as texts during Advent (for churches that use the lectionary, Mark 1.1-8 is the gospel reading for the second Sunday in advent in lectionary year B). On the whole, the singing went pretty well. However, I had hoped that the singers would hit the block chords in measures 12-13 with more volume, and the fuguing section at the end (mm. 14 ff.) didn’t have quite the rhythmic drive that I was aiming for, so I may wind up doing some revision.

[Sheet music removed; a revised version of this tune was published in an issue of The Trumpet.]