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I Belong To This Band, Hallelujah!

Having had a couple of days to recover from the experience, I will now try to describe some of the Midwest Convention. I wouldn't ever be able to do it justice; I'd have to be Laura Ingalls Wilder, John Irving and Michael Ende to have the descriptive skills for that. But maybe I can get across just a little taste of what one of the biggest Sacred Harp singings in the country is like.

First, a little background information. The Midwest Convention is held annually in Chicago, on (deep breath) "the first fifth Sunday and Saturday before, preceding July 4, except when the 5th Sunday falls in June, then it will be on the weekend before Memorial Day," according to the minute book. Don't worry about puzzling that out -- even singers, who are used to reckoning dates this way, have trouble with it. All it means was that, this year, the Midwest was held Memorial Day weekend, which is really the best time for it. This session happened to be the 20th anniversary of the Midwest Convention, so the chairs decided to make the whole convention a memorial for all the deceased singers who had attended or contributed to the Midwest over the years.

The second necessary bit of information is that I used to live in Chicago. I lived there for four and a half years, until I went to grad school. I sang with the Hyde Park Sacred Harp singers nearly every Thursday night that I lived there, and they are some of my closest friends. They were just heartbroken to see me go off to Grad School Town.

The first thing was that the Midwest nearly didn't happen at all. They were scheduled to have use of a singing room and kitchen on the University of Chicago campus, but got dumped three days beforehand. There was a mad scramble to find alternative spaces that would be acoustically good, hold three hundred singers, have kitchen facilities for same, and would be relatively cheap to rent. Within twenty-four hours, University Church and the Irish American Heritage Center agreed to host. And with that, magic happened.

Coming back to Chicago was like coming home. Especially since, the minute I walked in the door of University Church, Chicago singers were running to crunch me in big hugs and cry, "Welcome home!" Slowly, the hall began to fill with singers. Old singers, young singers, Southern singers, Northern singers, new singers, lifelong singers. Miss Pauline Creel Childers, age 90, arrived from Michigan. Miss Pauline is the dowager lady of the tradition, and I hope to be still singing and still leading like that when I'm 90. On the other end, one of the Chicago singers brought his three-month-old daughter into the hollow square and asked us all to sing for her. It was like welcoming her into the family.

The Midwest does tend to feel like a big family reunion. The singing community is large but well-knit, and every year I feel my place in it solidify. Every year, someone says, "I know you. We met at X Convention." And we are friends, just like that.

The singing was loud and joyous. Tenor, alto, treble and bass all sat arranged in a hollow square, shoulder to shoulder, breathing and singing and moving together. All the sound is directed toward the center of the hollow square, where everyone who wishes to do so takes a turn leading. To stand at the very center of this 200-voice-strong mass of sound is a stunning experience. The sound literally flows right through you and shakes your bones. People hearing it for the first time (or the fiftieth) sometimes start weeping, or end up grinning crazily, or both. Once you've made this kind of music with someone, you're forever a little closer to them.

Since the whole convention was a memorial, in addition to the lists of the sick and shut-in and the year's deceased, there was a third memorial list for those who had died over the past twenty years. The memorial lesson itself was scheduled for Sunday just before dinner.

Dinner, at a Sacred Harp singing, is an experience in and of itself. It is to an ordinary potluck what The Plaza Hotel is to the average Holiday Inn. There were three tables of hearty entrees and two tables of desserts (which tended towards pies, cookies, miscellaneous varieties of tasty goo, and Melanie Hauff's mile-high coconut cream cake), as well as vats of iced tea and lemonade. Singing starts at 9:30 and continues until 3:30, with dinner break in the middle.

In between powerful singing experiences, there were the little moments. One U of C graduate stood to announce a performance Saturday night by Golosá, the University's Russian choir (which she used to be a member of). She announced that proceeds from the ticket sales would be used to send the choir to Siberia. There was Marcia Johnson, the Convention chair, asking her five-year-old granddaughter to announce the break. The granddaughter stood up to her full height and said, "No!" in front of two hundred singers. There was the thrill of seeing two little boys who I've known since they were toddlers standing up and leading for the first time on their own.

During the Sunday session, we sang five anthems, the longest, most complex type of song in the book. We even sang "Rose of Sharon," which is one of the more complex even within that designation.

And the memorial lesson. It was long, as I expected it to be. The members of the memorial committee stood, one by one, and spoke for absent friends. The list of the sick and shut-in was first, and then came the speakers for the dead. Richard DeLong of Carrollton, Georgia, a pillar of the singing tradition, stood up with tears streaming down his face and spoke of the ties of love and friendship and song that bound us together with each other and the dead. Usually, some people cry during the memorial lesson, but I don't think I've ever seen so many people weeping as when Richard spoke about his grandmother who gave him the gift of song which he helped to pass on to so many people in that room. When he finished the main memorial, Jerry Enright One of this friend's last requests had been for Jerry to lead in his memory at the Midwest, and now Jerry spoke for his friend. The singing of the memorial songs somehow seemed much warmer than the normal full-throated joyous bellow of the rest of the weekend.

And it is a joyous bellow, for all that most of the songs are about death and dying. The imagery is terrifying and awe-inspiring and wondrous, roared out by singers who, in the moment of song, have no fear, even should their lives end in that instant.

The Midwest Convention is a big experience. I haven't even approached how big and powerful it was. I am so glad that I am part of that band, of this great community that sings welcome to little babies and farewell to the dead with the last breath in its body.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 1st, 2005 12:56 pm (UTC)
Wow. No wonder you said the experience was emotionally draining. I think music touches us and rouses our emotions in a way almost nothing else does. And to make it and hear it in the long tradition with friends must be amazing.
Jun. 1st, 2005 05:55 pm (UTC)
Nearly indescribable, though many have tried. Have you ever been to a singing? I know I sent you some recordings for the end of "Tangled Web," and they'll give you a sort of idea of what it sounds like. But they can't quite capture the experience of being in the middle of it.
Jun. 1st, 2005 06:00 pm (UTC)
I never ever knew there were such singings! I loved the links you sent when I finished "Tangled Web" though.
Jun. 2nd, 2005 12:59 am (UTC)
There are singings all over the country. According to the minute book, there are two regular singings in Iowa.

Meanwhile, here's a couple more tunes:
China is an old New England tune that was sung an awful lot at 19th century New England funerals. It's currently one of the more popular tunes in the book.

And here is a completememorial lesson from the first Maquoketa River Convention a few years ago, so you can hear what that's like. The lady speaking for the dead is one of my dearest Chicago friends. She's one of the people who squeals and hugs me when I go back there.

Figured you might like the memorial lesson after recent events. Not naming names here. I'm just saying.
Jun. 2nd, 2005 02:47 am (UTC)
I'm out of town right now, contacting you from a hotel room in San Antonio, so I'm going to wait until I get home to listen. Thanks for this, Pony.
Jun. 2nd, 2005 06:21 pm (UTC)
That sounds amazing! I think the closest time I've come to hearing that sort of 200 voices strong, powerful singing was at the cinema! Wouldn't that be overwhelming in person...
Jun. 2nd, 2005 08:40 pm (UTC)
Did Cold Mountain ever make it to Israel? There's real shape-note singing in that.

It can be overwhelming in person. Also, very addictive. . .
Jun. 3rd, 2005 10:12 am (UTC)
Of course it did, but I was living in Holland at the time and didn't have money to go to the cinema. I should rent it someday...

I love soundtracks with big choruses in it! My Art History class once went to the new Opera House and we got to see a rehearsal. It was mesmerizing, we couldn't leave!
Jun. 3rd, 2005 12:18 pm (UTC)
I saw Cold Mountain in the theaters when it first came out in the U.S., as did the entire Sacred Harp community. It didn't matter that it was going to be primarily a Brooding Romance or that I had thought the book was stupid; not only was there Sacred Harp on the soundtrack (produced by T-Bone Burnett, who did O Brother, Where Art Thou?), but it was being sung by real Harp singers, really recorded in a real church in Ider, Alabama. It was the first time I really knew people who had worked that closely on a major motion picture.

I thought Cold Mountain was, all things considered, a pretty mediocre movie with a kick-butt soundtrack. There's two Sacred Harp songs in it. "Idumea" plays underneath the battle at the beginning, and then there's a scene of an actual singing just before the war is announced, where they sing "I'm Going Home." And, yes, I did sing along in the theater, just very quietly. The DVD release in the U.S. has a little documentary about Sacred Harp on it. Maybe I should rent it one of these days.

Big choruses in movies really are grand. Although the usage of the big chorus at the end of Elizabeth was a little weird. They'd been doing pretty well up till that point with 16th-century English-sounding pastiche, and then for the very last scene. . . "Requiem aeternam" from Mozart's Requiem Mass? I thought the effect was jarring.
Jun. 3rd, 2005 12:37 pm (UTC)
Interesting to talk to someone with such extensive knowledge in music.

I couldn't possibly remember the end of Elizabeth, but now I want to rent it just so I could hear again what you're talking about.

I know it's not the same, but you reminded me of a friend who can't stand listening to the music used in the TTT trailers, something out of the Requiem For A Dream soundtrack, I think. She says it doesn't match, but I disagree.
Jun. 3rd, 2005 01:53 pm (UTC)
Trailer music is just scratch music. Usually, a film's full score is not finished/recorded by the time they have to get the trailer out, so the studio just slaps on something that they think will fit. Tracks from films a year or two old are common, as are "O fortuna" from Carmina Burana and "Mars, the Bringer of War" from The Planets.
Jun. 20th, 2005 07:45 pm (UTC)
The singing in Cold Mountain was recorded in Henagar, not Ider. Liberty Baptist Church, Henagar, Alabama, to be precise.
Jun. 20th, 2005 10:26 pm (UTC)
Dangit. I keep getting Henagar and Ider mixed up. Not the first time I've made that mistake, either. I knew it was Liberty Baptist, but I could never remember whether that was in Henagar or Ider. And the sad thing is, I think I've sung at Liberty Baptist once.
Jun. 21st, 2005 01:20 pm (UTC)
The singing was at Lacy's Chapel, but dinner was moved to Liberty afterwards because of the rain.
Oct. 16th, 2005 01:35 am (UTC)
I belong to this band, hallelujah
I liked your description of Midwest; it brought back good memories of that weekend. It was my first time at that convention, so some of the 20th anniversary celebration went over my head. What tune(s) did you lead?
Oct. 16th, 2005 04:49 am (UTC)
Re: I belong to this band, hallelujah
What did I lead? It's been a while.

I think it was 218, "Mount Pleasant."
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )


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