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.