Monday, April 23, 2007


"Sing" is the name of the musical godzilla that I take part in every year up at Baylor U. But its full name is The All-University Sing. It's not a verb, not an instruction, but a noun. (Insofar as a verb can be nouned, that is. Hm... it's not a gerund, exactly, so then what is it? Not really a supine either. Just a nouned verb, I suppose.) Anyway. A sing is a gathering of people who sing, and that's the origin of Baylor's snazzy event.

Other major events, like the annual Messiah Sing at San Fernando Cathedral, I have yet to experience. But this weekend on the way to a gig in Austin, Catherine and I met up with Sean McMains at a Sacred Harp Sing.

I've mentioned my Sacred Harp interest before, but only as an aside. Are you familiar with it? If you grew up Baptist, or Congregationalist, or Church of Christ, then you probably know several of the tunes in it by heart. It's a hymnal.

I'd always thought, inchoately, that the name Sacred Harp referred to the Psalms. Those early Protestants, especially the American immigrants, saw themselves as God's (new) Chosen People, and their literal English translations of everything scriptural occasionally veered into madness. But apparently that's not it. The sacred harp, as any good Church of Christer will tell you, is your voice. It's sacred, ordained by God for his praise, unlike the sinful harp of Jubal, the symbol of our fallenness and the initiator of culture. (Anyone wishing to know why evangelicals so conflate culture with sin need look no further than Genesis 4.)

So, the Sacred Harp was an influential collection of hymns that form an American musical canon. Every great contribution America has made to music, from Aaron Copland and John Williams to gospel, R&B, soul, rock, and — most deeply — folk and country, has at least some connection to it or its cousin Southern Harmony.

Ever heard of shape-notes? The rural folk who sang this stuff weren't educated in music. I can't think of what could be easier than our standard music notation, which works precisely like a graph: as time goes across, the notes go up or down. But for some reason, they considered it easier to put the notes into shapes, so that if you are in the key of C the C is a triangle and the D is a circle and the E is a square, which were then called fa, sol, and la. That to me makes it harder and not easier, but some people still swear by it.

The original version, which I have in facsimile, is three lines, with the middle line being the main melody. Sometime about a century ago, they decided four was better, and wrote alto lines for all the hymns. Saturday, then, we sat in a square facing each other, grouped as baritone, alto, soprano, and melody. (Or, I should say, tenor. The word comes from tenere; that singer tenaciously holds onto the melody.) Sean recorded some of it, which you can hear at the above-linked site, or you can hear a more practised group by clicking around The main index after the splash page has a neat player that allows you to scroll through several complete hymns, which start with all the fa-sol-la stuff before the lyrics begin. You'll recognize a couple of the tunes, including the one pictured above, from the movie Cold Mountain.

The sounds that poured out Saturday were imperfect, sometimes horribly so. But the Platonic ear heard spare, sturdy, slightly weird, raw harmonies, sounds that stir the deep heart of any American.

My voice was beginning to get raw in a non-metaphorical way, and within a few hours I was officially feeling bad. The show had to go on, though, and so I tried to play the evening jazz gig like I was well. I cancelled the other gigs of the weekend, and took it pretty easy, with sternly beautiful music occasionally clearing out my head.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sacred Harp is a love of mine; I've never had time to attend more than three Sings, but they were great. I bought the book, and intend to get back with the program here in Louisiana as soon as things settle down. See you Friday! J Ashton

6/25/07, 8:09 PM  

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