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A Sacred Harp Mitzvah

An account of yet another Sacred Harp singing is below the cut.

They got a good crowd, probably around sixty or seventy all told. And a number of students from Moody Bible College turned up for part of the day. This singing has always been receptive to new music, and this year it became a two-book singing. Enough people brought copies of the new Missouri Harmony that we were able to do some serious singing from that book.

There is some good music in there. We've sung from it since Memorial Day weekend in our local singing, but this was a chance to hear some of that music with a large, confident group, and the difference was amazing. "Ten Thousand Charms" seems to be taking the Sacred Harp community by storm, and for good reason -- that tune just soars with a large group. But there are some other real gems in there -- "Boulder" has finally been published, as has "Iowa," and there are some nice earlier works as well. I was particularly impressed with "St. Martins," a 1748 tune by William Tans'ur. I've led that at our Sunday singings a couple of times, and it was good to hear it sung with confidence.

My friend Bruce has finished his first CD, and he'll release it formally at the end of the month. Mazel tov, Bruce!

The memorial lesson was extremely emotional, as expected. The Chicago group has lost three members in the last few months -- Dean Slaton, Al Frank, and Vi Stark. Vi, the most recent death, sang regularly in Hyde Park and requested that the group come to sing for her a day or two before she died. They did, of course. There could be no question about that.

Suzanne Flandreau, who spoke for the dead, got all choked up at first, and then segued into speaking about Al Frank, who was a big presence in every way in Chicago. She told a story about how he had been out at a conference in the wilds of upstate New York (or possibly Canada) and heard about a new singing starting up fifty miles away. He hopped right in his car and drove out to lend his voice. "It was," he told Suzanne later, "a Sacred Harp mitzvah." Something that one must do that also carries a blessing when one does it. Suzanne hopes that the concept of a Sacred Harp mitzvah will spread. Like singing for Vi before she died. Then she led "Easter Anthem" as the song for the dead, for Al. I don't think I've ever heard of "Easter Anthem" used as a memorial lesson tune before, but it fit that one. Jim Swanson, the chaplain, closed the lesson speaking of death as one of the many gifts given to humans.

The singing got extremely powerful after dinner. I don't think I've ever heard the singing room in Quaker House get quite that loud before. There were a couple of babies hanging around, and as always, they were entirely unfazed by the noise level.

I miss Vi. We sang "Amsterdam" specially for her.

Amazingly enough, we were all still able to talk at the end of the singing. The Chicago singers took advantage of that to ask when I'd be returning to Chicago. I told them I was working on the application to the University and would they please do their part and make blood sacrifice to the ethnomusicology department.

All in all, another excellent, if somewhat ad hoc, effort by the Hyde Park singers.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 6th, 2005 02:53 pm (UTC)
Are there any recordings of you all singing?

Oh my...you're up to having to apply to go back to Uni? Doctorate?

I was wondering where you'd gotten off to, actually, and just getting a tiny bit worried...then, there you are, telling another wonderful story about music, and mitzvahs. :).

I am so sorry, again, about all those friends lost. That's so hard. My mom's choir could be like that, a bit. Several of those there passed on, and the one lady in particular, she misses terribly. When you sing together like that, you can get very close...

Nov. 6th, 2005 04:06 pm (UTC)
Are there any recordings of you all singing?

I don't know that there are any commercially available recordings of any group I've personally sung in. But there are plenty of mp3 recordings of Harp singing in general online. You want me to point you to any of those?

Sorry I haven't been around. I was kind of nastily sick last weekend and wasn't up to anything more than whingeing and one or two episodes of I.N.P.O.D. snark, and I don't think anyone would want to read that.
Nov. 6th, 2005 03:14 pm (UTC)
Ok, I really, really, really want to hear you sing… Is there anyone famous I’d be likely to know that you sound like??

These Sacred Harp singings sound so amazing. How did you first get involved in all that? Was it something you grew up with?

It sounds to me like the memorial lessons are a really integral part of all this, although I’m sorry that there are people the group have lost. It must be hard when everyone is together and there are people missing who were obviously treasured. That’s a really cool story about Al driving the fifty miles when he heard about a new group.

I think it’s really sweet how much the Chicago people want you back! I hope you do get back there. Would that be next year, after you’ve finished your masters?

I hope you had a great time. These things seem like a pretty special experience :-)
Nov. 6th, 2005 04:15 pm (UTC)
Ok, I really, really, really want to hear you sing… Is there anyone famous I’d be likely to know that you sound like??

Do you mean me personally, or the Sacred Harp group as a whole? I have no idea what my own personal voice sounds like, since I haven't heard it recorded in years and years. But if it's the Harp sound you're looking for, there are plenty of mp3 recordings online that I could point you to. None that I've personally been involved in, unfortunately. And there are some very nicely done scenes in Cold Mountain that are worth checking out.

I didn't grow up with Sacred Harp. I started singing in college (undergrad), so I've been singing for about six or seven years now. It's one of the most amazing things in my life. There are singings literally all over the United States, and I've traveled to places I ordinarily wouldn't have ever thought to visit specifically to sing. Whenever I go somewhere, I can check the minute book to see if there's a nearby singing I could attend, and sometimes I'm able to go to one of those. You can drop in at any singing in the country, anywhere, any time, and have instant friends. I know there's at least one regular singing in the U.K., but I don't know about Ireland.

The memorial lesson is an absolutely integral part of any major singing. A friend of mine did her bachelor's thesis on the memorial lesson and its varied functions in transmission of tradition and group cohesion.
Nov. 6th, 2005 04:35 pm (UTC)
I meant you personally ;-) I've listened to some of the links you've posted before so I have an idea of what you're talking about. I've never seen Cold Mountain but I think a friend has the soundtrack so I must get hold of it.

I've been reading about it on wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred_Harp
Fascinating stuff.
Nov. 6th, 2005 04:52 pm (UTC)
I meant you personally ;-)

Sorry. I think you're pretty much out of luck on that one. As I said, I don't know what my solo singing voice sounds like -- it's impossible to hear your own voice as other people hear it, and it's been a long time since I've heard a recording of myself, and I know my voice has changed in many ways since then. If I ever meet you in person, I will sing for you.
Nov. 6th, 2005 03:55 pm (UTC)
Thank you for writing this up! It was very comforting to read while I was up at 3am listening to sirens and trying to decide whether to go to the basement. I think Al would have gotten a kick out of having Easter Anthem sung for him. Was Kiri there (with or without new hair color and/or gentleman) to record the memorial?

Our local singing's pet ethnomusicologist is also applying to Chicago, so I'll keep my fingers crossed for both of you.
Nov. 6th, 2005 04:05 pm (UTC)
Glad you liked it. I wrote it partially so you could read it. They had you on the sick-and-shut-in list, so you were definitely thought of.

Kiri wasn't there, unfortunately. I think it'd be kind of a schlep from Alberta or wherever she is now.
Nov. 6th, 2005 04:45 pm (UTC)
Let me ask an unconventional question, FP.. How do you manage to get on through common, awful RL? I mean, I'm truly envious of your world, music -and fencing- seem environments in which you are surrounded by people who share that intellectual insterest...It seems to me that you enjoy an environment that provides with many interesting emotional and intellectual experiences and suddenly I found myself wondering if it made the contrast more acute, or rather helped you cope with noisy, petty, "real" life?
Nov. 6th, 2005 04:57 pm (UTC)
Well, I'm a full-time graduate student, so "real" life for me does mean school, writing, singing, dancing and fencing.

I actually did hold a real job at one point. I worked as a video archivist for a TV production house. I dealt with it by working for five years, deciding I didn't like the contrast between the singing, dancing, and fencing aspects of life and the realization that I had to go to work and deal with people, look up things for them, find things they'd lost, and hear all about the many ways people have found to off one another, and then deciding to give it all up and flee to grad school. So one could say that I didn't deal with "real" life very well after all.
Nov. 7th, 2005 02:27 pm (UTC)
Blessed FP! May you keep your life for loooong! :-)
Nov. 9th, 2005 05:55 pm (UTC)
A Sacred Harp mitzvah discussion, accompanied by Billings' Easter Anthem
I, too, was very pleased with the memorial lesson. I never had the opportunity to meet Al Frank, but felt that I knew him a little after hearing the lesson. I also liked the juxtaposition of the Jewish mitzvah concept and the Christian New England music selection -- at the memorial lesson, which is very Southern. Somehow this heterodoxy seems to me to strengthen rather than detract from the Sacred Harp tradition -- but maybe the true traditionalist would be offended at that?
Nov. 9th, 2005 08:35 pm (UTC)
Re: A Sacred Harp mitzvah discussion, accompanied by Billings' Easter Anthem
I think that respectful, considered heterodoxy strengthens any tradition. Traditions that remain static and unchanging forever and ever amen will eventually just shrivel up and die. I think that that was beginning to happen to Sacred Harp just before the folk revival of the 1960s, and it was the infusion of new singers and new ideas that came with the folk revival that gave it new life. I believe that the upsurge in new inspiration and composition from the new northern singers in the 1980s was what led Hugh McGraw to initiate the 1991 revision of the book, for instance.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )