Archive for the ‘Sacred Harp’ Category

I’m at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC. Today I’ll be attending the pretty-much all-day Sacred Harp singing at Piccolo Spoleto. SCETV Radio interviewed me for their opening show of “Spoleto Today” for the 2011 season. Here’s the podcast.

I’m in the second half of the show, which is about 52 minutes long. If you happen to get this on Saturday May 28 2011, the singing is from 10am to noon and 2-4pm at Gage Hall, 4 Archdale Street in Charleston.

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I’ll be in Cincinnati on March 10th. The Society for American Music is having its conference there this year, and they always have a shape-note singing. The Cincinnati group has been invited to join in.

It’s not listed on the conference schedule, as far as I can see, but we’ll be at Salons B&C of the Omni Netherland downtown, Thursday May 10th at 5:45 pm. This looks like an interesting conference, with lots of good stuff to do in Cincinnati.

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The Sacred Harp community of Cincinnati has lost one of our dearest friends. Christine Cox died last Wednesday at 87, following a serious stroke in March of this year. Singer Eloise Clark was with her when she died, singing some of her favorite hymns. John Bealle has a wonderful tribute to Chris on his website.

The Cincinnati singers will sing at her visitation this Sunday night and her funeral Monday morning. Isaac Watts’ lyrics to “China,” which we will sing, read in part:

Why do we mourn departing friends,
Or shake at death’s alarms?
‘Tis but the voice that Jesus sends,
To call them to His arms.

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On March 7th we attended a performance of this work by William Averitt:

The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to St. Matthew
In Twelve Scenes
Incorporating American Shape Note Hymns

Averitt is on the music faculty of Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. This performance was in Columbia, SC, with orchestra and the University of South Carolina Concert Choir and the Cantus choir of Shenandoah, directed by USC’s Larry Wyatt. It will be performed again at the southeastern conference of the American Choral Directors Association in Memphis. The conference is March 10-12 and the Averitt performance is on the 11th.

I wanted to see this work not only because of my long interest in Sacred Harp/shape-note music, but also because our son John is a senior vocal performance major at USC. He sang the role of Judas on Sunday and will do so again in Memphis.

The work was commissioned by a group of southeastern music departments and premiered in 2000. Very much in the spirit of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, it presents Matthew’s narrative in 12 scenes with an Evangelist and Jesus in the prominent roles. Just as Bach drew from Lutheran chorales, each scene in Averitt is followed by a hymn taken from the shape-note tradition, concluding with the moving Deal Gently with Thy Servants, Lord (‘Gently Lord, O Gently Lead Us’) from  The American Vocalist of 1849.

I spoke briefly with Averitt after the performance. He first encountered shape-note music from recordings by the Boston Camerata. But only Deal Gently is presented in a straightforward shape-note style. Others use the words and the tunes, but are set in complex harmonies reflecting a contemporary classical idiom. The other ones Averitt used are:

  • from Harmonia Sacra: 68 Supplication, 302 Resignation, 389 Limehouse, 114 Liberty Hall, 232 Voice of Warning, 213 Salisbury
  • from The Sacred Harp: 39 Detroit, 95 Vernon, 312 Restoration, 102 Fulfillment, 38 Windham, 159 Wondrous Love, 48 Kedron

It’s not always easy music. Some in our party found it difficult going. Others were fascinated. All of us found the final chorale, Deal Gently, deeply moving. To me it’s a worthy successor to Bach’s use of the Passion Chorale ‘O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded.’ I want it sung at my funeral.

By the way, John did great.

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DrRalphStanleyBookIn a recent thread on the Fasola discussions group (about Sacred Harp and other shape-note styles), I wrote about the close connection between music and its place of origin.

I should have let the great Ralph Stanley do the talking. Here’s a quote from the 11/16 Newsweek, taken from Ralph’s book Man of Constant Sorrow:

We were the last generation from these mountains to live from the earth . . . It was a hard life and there was a lot of suffering. But the music we made couldn’t have come from any other place or time. The suffering was part of what made the music strong, and I reckon that’s why it’s lasted . . . What’s real doesn’t die.

He’s talking about his kind of old-time music, of course, but to me this speaks to Sacred Harp as well.

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SHSArtbig-2Item 1:
I was curious to see if any members of LinkedIn had “Sacred Harp” in their profiles. I found over 60 entries, but couldn’t see the names of most of them because they weren’t in my network. Then I checked to see if there was a LinkedIn Group about Sacred Harp. Again, no luck. So I created one — “Sacred Harp Singing“.

Item 2:
In February several members of the Cincinnati Sacred Harp singers supplied the music at my church in Oxford, Ohio. Here are mp3s of the six songs (numbers are the traditional way to refer to the songs in the Sacred Harp song book).

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49OldHundred-OComeI’m no expert on this topic, but I fond this post from a member of the Fasola Discussions list to be very moving. (Fasola refers to the syllables Fa, Sol, La, three of the four syllables used by Sacred Harp singers — find out more at Fasola.org). The question that arose was whether lifelong singing keeps the mind alert.

I did a sort of vigil with my mom the night she died (from cumulative side effects of advanced Alzheimer’s).  She was a lifelong member of the Disciples of Christ, and a minister’s wife, and of course had known all their hymns.  And so had I, being their kid.  So I got out my bayan (a Russian chromatic button accordion, which she wouldn’t have known from Adam’s off ox, even when she had her mental faculties) and played through the old hymn book I found in the dresser of her nursing home room.  It was mostly later 19th century hymns, some gospel songs — The old rugged cross, Sweet hour of prayer, Let the lower lights be burning — that genre, anyway.  And I did a few more “oldies” that weren’t in the hymn book — like Whispering hope, In the garden, and Help somebody today — since I knew she used to like them.

The bayan sounds pretty much like the reed organs of her youth; and she was moving her mouth with at least some of the words of nearly every song I played.  She probably hadn’t recognized any visitor for six months before that, and could no longer move her major limbs. And she was in the final phase of a Do Not Resuscitate order (advance medical directive) that she had requested and signed, years before. But at some deep level, she still clearly knew one old hymn from another. I played hymns off and on from about 9:30 PM to 12:30 AM, before I called it a night. And the nurses woke me up at 5 AM to tell me she had stopped breathing.

If anybody’s into the Daniel Gawthrop number, “Sing me to Heaven,” it was that sort of experience.

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This article from a Louisville Sacred Harp singer is one of the best I’ve ever read on why people sing Sacred Harp. It insightfully explains why the tradition holds appeal for a generation more familiar with punk rock.

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