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

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?

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.

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.

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

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.

Singing at home


Tonight’s singing was the one closest to my fiftieth birthday. So of course I had to lead 50 t “Mortality.” It was a particularly strong group of singers tonight (especially the bass section), so even though there were less than twenty singers, it was a real wall of sound standing in that hollow square and listening to Isaac Watts’ powerful poetry:

Death, like an over-flowing stream,
Sweeps us away; our life’s a dream,
An empty tale, a morning flower,
Cut down and withered in an hour.

Our age to seventy years is set;
How short the time! How frail the state!
And if to eighty we arrive,
We’d rather sigh and groan than die.

Singing at home


Tonight I found myself paying attention to some of the delightful dissonances in Sacred Harp music. For example, we sang “Save, Mighty Lord” (70b), and my ear was caught by the chord at the first cadence in the chorus: F in the bass, A flat in the tenor, and E flat in the treble (there is no alto voice in this song). That’s a perfect fifth over a minor third, which makes a certain kind of harmonic sense, but it results in a seventh between the bass and treble voices (I find this interval particularly noticeable between the bass voices and the male trebles). Then the basses remain on the F, while the tenors move up to C, and the trebles move up to F: that’s an octave and a fifth from the bass, and those perfect intervals seem to make the preceding chord stand out even more. During the second verse, I found myself not singing and just listening to the wild sound.

This made me want to lead “The Prodigal Son” (113), which if sung as written has several tritones in the chorus, where the bass voices sing a G sharp, and the tenors and trebles each sing a D above it (again, this is a three-voice song). For reference, each of the italicized syllables falls on a tritone: “…And starve in a for-eign land, / My fa-ther’s house hath large supplies, And bounteous are his hands.” In the past, I’ve noticed that I and some other basses tend to flat that G sharp to a G natural, but tonight the basses pretty consistently sang the G sharp, and the resulting tritone sounded surprisingly good, especially when the first one of the series is followed almost immediately by a melismatic passage of parallel fourths (on the word “land”).

These dissonances are — for me, anyway — what give Sacred Harp music its characteristic wild, almost rough, sound.

Singing at home

Theology and Sacred Harp singing

In his essay “Sacred Harp Singing,” Stephen Marini assess the religiousness of Sacred Harp singing in the urban revival, and says in part: “The religious meaning of Sacred Harp today, I think, reflects the displacement of the sacred from primary religious institutions to secondary expressions… Northern [sic] singers have grown up after modernization disenchanted the worldview of primary religious institutions. They are secular urban individuals who have found in Sacred Harp a secondary expression of sacrality that fits well into their disparate and often eclectic worldviews.” (in Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music and Public Culture [Chicago: University of Illinois, 2003], pp. 86-87)

After the weekly singing tonight, I spent half an hour discussing theology with another singer. We compared his Calvinist theology with my Unitarian Universalist theology. It was one of the better theological discussions I’ve had in some months. And because we were not having the discussion within a formal or traditional religious setting, I guess Marini is correct: our conversation was a small example of the displacement of the sacred from primary religious institutions.

By way of contrast, I was talking with a couple of other signers last week who said they feel no religious content at all in Sacred Harp singing — it’s just music for them. And I suppose this is why last weekend the Portland Sacred Harp group had a singing school to teach singers about properly emphasizing the words of the songs. For those of us for whom the words have some level of meaning (in my case, very figurative and metaphorical but not less religious meaning), it is intuitively obvious where the proper emphasis belongs; but for those who feel no religious content in the songs might not think much about the words at all.

Singing at home

Lining out

At tonight’s singing, after the break, Susan stood up to lead the class in no. 163b, “China.” Several people had had to leave during the break, and we were down to less than 20 singers; yet in spite of that, my sense was that the singing was stronger; we had hit our stride. Susan asked for all three verses, which we sang quite well — loud and true and with good rhythm — and then Susan told us there’s a fourth verse, which she would line out for us.

I have never heard of anyone lining out a verse for a Sacred Harp class. indeed, the old New England singing schools, from whence the Sacred harp tradition springs, was begun to replace the old chaotic lining-out of hymns with Regular Singing. As Regular Singing continues to die out in churches, the lining-out of hymns is making a modest come-back in some worship services; I’ve lined out a few hymns myself, and rather like it. But, as I say, it was odd to hear lining-out in a Sacred Harp class.

Susan would barely get the words out of her mouth when the class would respond with a rush of sound, not even waiting for her to mark time. I have never heard a lined-out hymn sound so good. There was no stumbling or fumbling for words; Sacred Harp singing develops a singer’s memory. There was no hesitation about the music; even though we were all looking at our books, Sacred Harp singing turns singers into excellent sight-readers, so even the distraction and novelty of lining-out did not distract the class from singing the music. There was no need to wait for Susan to mark time; the Sacred Harp tradition cultivates musical leadership among all singers.