In early June, my family and I attended our first Sacred Harp Sing. We (at least I) approached it with some trepidation. Somehow I had the idea that we would be the only Catholics among a bevy of Primitive Baptists, who might look askance at this Papist Invasion. Even the name of the venue reinforced this assumption: It was called Blessings, which I assumed meant that it was some sort of evangelical Christian bookstore.
My first intimation that this would not be exactly what I expected came as we ascended the stairs from the Blessings parking lot. The stair rail was festooned with multi-colored Tibetan prayer flags.
Then there was the interior of the building itself. (It looked like a converted textile mill, by the way — cavernous, with lots of exposed brick. Don't know whether it actually was an ex-mill, but it had The Look.)
Anyway, the interior walls were painted rainbow colors and adorned with New Age aphorisms that came off like a cross between Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the Collected Wit and Wisdom of Oprah Winfrey.
Once again: Ohhhhhkay.
Then there were our fellow singers. As I pretty much expected, they were mostly Boomers, like my husband and me. But, as I hadn't expected, they were, well, not exactly fire-breathing backwoods Baptists. There was one Baptist lady, a sweet, pretty Southern belle with a lovely alto voice. But everyone else, it seemed, came from fairly leftish religious traditions. (At our second sing, we learned that Quakerism was well represented, with representation, also, from the Unitarian Universalist Association. But I'm getting ahead of myself....)
They are simply wonderful people, so I hope they will not mind if I observe that there was a certain New-Agey-Boomer-Hippie tinge to the gathering. As a Boomer myself, once as flower-childlike as they come, I can relate. Really I can. I still fondly hum those old Sixties standards about war, peace, and wearing flowers in one's hair in the streets of San Francisco. It's in my blood, so to speak.
But I must confess it came as a bit of Culture Shock when people who seemed as if they might be more at home at a Pete Seeger concert started belting out these 19th-century revivalist Christian hymns, with lyrics by the likes of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. Talk about your cognitive dissonance.
However, they sang lustily, and boy, could they ever sing. One gentleman in particular possessed a bass voice so rich and sonorous that I could have listened all evening.
My family and I were utterly lost. We tagged along as best we could, trying to master all the fa-so-la stuff and failing pretty much completely. But we had loads of fun, and we resolved then and there to attend regularly. (The sings occur the first Sunday evening of every month; there was a hiatus in July for summer vacation.)
Last Sunday evening, we attended our second Sacred Harp Sing — same time, same bat station. This time, we were psychologically prepared for the Tibetan prayer flags and the Oprah aphorisms. And we'd practiced some songs from the Sacred Harp songbook, so we were a teeny tad more prepared for the singing itself.
It was a blast. The two hours sped by before we knew it.
At a Sacred Harp Sing, the participants form a hollow square: tenors on one side, basses on another, altos on another, trebles on another. At our first Sing, I had foolishly taken my place among the altos (because that was the part I used to sing in church choir). This time around, I wised up. I figured it was hard enough trying to master shape-note singing without making it so much harder for myself by tackling one of the most difficult parts. So, I joined the tenors (men and women), who carry the melody. (My husband and sons, much wiser than I, had already aligned themselves with the tenors.)
Joining the tenors was the best decision I could have made. Much less stressful and ten tons easier. By the end of the evening, I was actually starting to "get my sea legs." I'm still a long, long way from anything approaching mastery, but at least I recognize the notes, more or less, and I don't miss too, too many of them. LOL!
We sang Northfield, Idumea, Evening Shade, Wondrous Love, Return Again, and several others I can't recall offhand. At my older son's behest, we tried tackling the complicated fuguing tune Ballstown, but we didn't get too far. Now my son's "homework" is to bone up on Ballstown before the next sing, so he can lead it. LOL...be careful what you wish for!
At the sweet Baptist lady's request, we ended with a round of Jesus Loves Me. Then we sang the traditional Sacred Harp closing song, Parting Hand.
All in all, a wonderful evening. May there be many more!