Sunday, August 10, 2008

Our Second Sacred Harp Sing

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. 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!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Here's to Mondegreens

First, an apology to my Vast Public (all two of you) for my remissness in posting. I had promised a post or two about Celtic music. Said post(s) never materialized. Mea culpa!

Well, not that anyone was waiting with baited breath or anythng. But here's my (partial) excuse anyway: I write for a living. (If you can call advertising copy "writing.") And, by the end of the workday or work week, I've pretty much shot my bolt. I don't mind commenting on other people's blogs, although even that is getting old. But posting on my own -- sometimes that simply seems too daunting.

But, be that as it may, I have a moment or two now and a small reserve of energy, so I thought I'd post on mondegreens.

You know about mondegreens even if you've never heard the term. Remember Jimi Hendrix's "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy"? That's a classic mondegreen.

A mondegreen is a mis-heard line or phrase from a poem or song. Here's Wikipedia's take on the term (complete with etymology):

I won't say I'm the Mondegreen Queen, but I've certainly committed my share. My husband, too, has hatched a few mondegreens in his time. When I first knew him, way back when, he confided that one of his favorite songs was Ghost Riders in the Sky. If you're familiar with this song (and it's a good 'un), then you probably know that the Ghost Riders of the title are "trying to catch the devil's herd / Across these endless skies." Well, my husband could have sworn that the lyrics were: "...trying to catch the devil's herd / Of frosties in the sky." When I asked him what frosties were, he said they were a kind of cow.

I shouldn't laugh, although I can't help it. Recently, in any event, my husband and I committed a mondegreen together. A marital mondegreen, you might say. (Well, we are one flesh and all.) We're both very fond of Celtic music (as I've mentioned before), including Scottish songs. And one of our favorite Scottish songs is A Parcel of Rogues, a setting of a famous poem by Robert Burns. One of the verses begins:

What force or guile
Could not subdue
Through many warlike ages
Is rocked now by a coward few
For hireling traitor's wages.

Well, both hubby and I were convinced that the lyrics actually went: "What false Argyle could not subdue..." Which made perfect sense to us, because apparently Argyle was one of those Scottish clans that made nicey-nice with the English, thereby incurring the wrath of their fellow Highlanders.

As mondegreeners go, though, my husband and I are rank amateurs. My all-time favorite mondegreen was concocted by the sister of my friend Carol.

Remember the song I Fought the Law, and the Law Won? You would if you were Of a Certain Age, like me. The song was a hit back around 1965, and the refrain goes like this:

Breakin' rocks in the hot sun,
I fought the Law, and the Law won,
I fought the Law, and the Law won.

Well, Carol's sister, it seems, was convinced that the lyrics actually went (are you ready for this?): "Hot Dogs in Love in a Round World."

Once, when she and Carol were driving somewhere, the song in question came tootling over the car radio, whereupon Carol's sister began singing along lustily, "Hot dogs in love in a round world..." At which point, Carol lost it. I would have, too.

When Carol first told me about this, I laughed so hard I thought I would split a gasket. Then (perhaps drawing unconsciously on my Lit-Crit graduate-school background), I offered my interpretation: "Well, it kind of makes sense, doesn't it? Here are these poor hot dogs, supplanted by fast-food hamburgers (which are round, of course), so it seems to them (the hot dogs) as if the entire world has gone circular and hamburgeresque. In their loneliness. the boy and girl hot dog find each other and fall in love, and it's 'you and me together, babe, against the round hamburger world'...."

Carol said, "UH-huh. No, Diane, you can't make it make sense. It's pure nuttiness, period."

Well, maybe so. But it sure is a great mondegreen.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sacred Harp CD Resources

As promised, here are links to CDs containing performances of Sacred Harp / Southern Harmony / Christian Harmony music:

The link above is to An American Christmas by Joel Cohen and the Boston Camerata. (Yes, I will learn how to do that Link Thing properly...but right now, for the sake of just getting this posted, I will go the amateurish route.) OK, An American Christmas is a pot pourri of different styles, and only a few songs are from the Sacred Harp / shape-note tradition. But those few gave my family and me our first exposure to shape-note singing. For this we will be forever grateful. Thank you, Joel Cohen!

The link above is to Rivers of Delight by the Word of Mouth Chorus. This is the Real Deal: songs from the Sacred Harp Songbook, performed in a much more authentic shape-note style. It is still very much a performance, so it's not as raw as genuine (church-based) shape-note singing. But, for many of us, it's about as authentic as we want to get. In my view, it's the perfect compromise between "overly slick" and "utterly raw." Your mileage may vary. :)

The links above are to two Anonymous 4 recordings: American Angels and Gloryland. Both CDs contain a mixture of shape-note songs, revivalist hymns, and other material. Anonymous 4 does not even pretend to be engaging in authentic shape-note singing. These are definitely performances, and the style is highly refined (although the singers do inject a bit of twang into their voices at times). But who cares? They sing like angels. Authenticity, schmenticity, say I.

The link above is to another gem from Joel Cohen and the Boston Camerata: The American Vocalist. The material comes from a 19th-century New England songbook, sort of a Boston cousin to the Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony. Yes, it's very polished and professional, but it's also perfectly lovely. The performance of "Star in the East" (a/k/a "Brightest and Best") is alone worth the purchase price, IMHO.

The link above is to the granddaddy of all authentic Sacred Harp recordings. This is as authentic as it gets, and it's definitely not everyone's cup of tea. But, once you get past the relatively crude sound quality (by today's standards) and the utter lack of polish or professionalism, you may come to appreciate the raw power and beauty of this heartfelt a capella singing. My favorite song on the CD is "Mear," although I think the two versions of "Lover of the Lord" are pretty powerul, too.

OK, enough for now. More posts to come, O vast public! And not all about Sacred Harp either: I've been planning a post on Celtic music for a while now; hope to get to it tomorrow or the next day.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

My E-Mail to My Pastor About Sacred Harp Singing

I've been meaning to post about our family's interest in Sacred Harp singing, but I've been too lazy to put together a coherent post. Tonight, though, I wrote to our pastor about it. So, what the heck, I'll just post the substance of that e-mail.

Our pastor is a history and genealogy buff, originally from Pennsylvania; that's why I figured he'd be interested in shape-note singing. I've been promising for ages to get him some CDs of Sacred Harp music. I finally just went ahead and burned a few. (Shhh, don't tell the CD companies. Mea culpa, mea culpa. )

OK, here e-mail to my pastor, ta-da!


Hi, Father ______! ...[skipping introductory blather]...

I burned two contraband CDs for you....The first is kind of a gentle introduction to Sacred Harp shape-note singing. The second is the Real Thing, pure and unadulterated.

On the first CD, I put some stuff performed by Joel Cohen and the Boston Camerata, Anonymous 4, and the Word of Mouth Chorus--pretty much in that order, I believe.

The Boston Camerata stuff is from a CD called The American Vocalist. The material is not technically Sacred Harp; it comes from several 19th-century New England song-books. Some of the songs are also found in the Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony song-books, but the performance style is a bit different (not as discordant, LOL).

The Anonymous 4 material is mostly from the Sacred Harp tradition, with a few later 19th-c. revivalist hymns thrown in, but Anonymous 4's performance style is very refined--not anywhere near as raw as shape-note singing is supposed to be. However, the Anonymous 4 singers sound like angels, so who cares? Authenticity isn't everything! :-)

The Word of Mouth Chorus section is much more authentic. It's from a CD called Rivers of Delight, which is widely considered the perfect introduction to the Sacred Harp tradition. The singing is very professional yet still raw and authentic enough to sound like real shape-note singing. It's as if you took a little eensy backwoods church's shape-note singing and cleaned it up a lot...LOL.

I've also included an Appalachian folk hymn called "Bright Morning Stars Are Rising," which isn't from the Sacred Harp tradition, as far as I know, but it's waaay cool.

I don't know if you have seen the movie Cold Mountain (I haven't), but supposedly it includes a funeral scene where the shape-note hymn "Idumea" is sung. Well, "Idumea" is on this first [newly burned] CD, too. Twice: once performed by Anonymous 4 (a very haunting, ethereal performance) and once performed by the Word of Mouth Chorus. It's the song that begins "And am I born to die?...To lay this body down." (I declare, at least 90% of shape-note hymns are about death! It seems that way, anyway.)

So, anyway, the first CD goes from "smoother/less authentic" at the beginning to "more raw/more authentic" toward the end. It kind of eases you into the shape-note sound, so to speak.

The second CD is from a Library of Congress recording of an actual Sacred Harp Sing in some eensy little backwoods church in Alabama. I believe it's from the 1940s. The sound quality's not that great. But it's as authentic as you can get. It is definitely not going to be everybody's cup of tea, and it may not be yours, Father...let's just say that it's an acquired taste. ;) But, as I say, it's as authentic as can be, and it's a great slice of rural Americana from a bygone era. No one could accuse the singers of being slick professionals! There's one lady in there whose voice sounds like a carrot-grater being scraped over a sheet of glass. But, once you get used to it, it's actually quite powerful and moving.

I understand that the Library of Congress made a bunch of these recordings of authentic shape-note singing, in order to capture and preserve a genuinely American folk idiom before it slips away into oblivion. Some of the later recordings have better sound quality. Maybe we'll buy some of those, one of these days.

For our family, this music has been downright addictive. We're big fans of Celtic music, too, and I'm a huge fan of Renaissance polyphony. Apparently both Celtic ballads and Renaissance polyphony influenced the American shape-note tradition. Which makes perfect sense to me: Like Celtic and polyphonic music, shape-note music is very ethereal, almost eerie, and truly haunting. I've always loved that haunting, plangent sound. It seems like the closest thing to the music of Heaven that we can get here on earth.

And, as I mentioned, a lot of the lyrics are about death. And also about Heaven and yearning for Heaven--that whole "wayfaring stranger" theme. It's amazing how otherworldly this music is, both in its eerie sound and in its afterlife-focused lyrics. What a contrast to so much of modern evangelicalism, with its self-help books and prosperity gospel and "Your Best Life Now" emphasis. I mentioned this to my husband Steve, and he reminded me of the obvious: In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the shape-note tradition arose, most rural Americans were hardscrabble-poor; their lives were full of hardship; many of them died relatively young. So, quite naturally, they focused on the afterlife. Fast-forward to the early 21st century: Even in a recession, so many of us are living in the kind of comfort our ancestors could not even have imagined. "Affluenza" leads us to focus on this life almost to the exclusion of the next.

Well, anyway, Father...sorry for the dissertation. ...

OK, one more thing. Someone asked me once, "Why is a Catholic like you so interested in this very Protestant music?" (I believe that the only religious congregations who still sing this stuff as part of worship are small Southern rural churches in the Churches of Christ, Primitive Baptist, and Independent Baptist traditions. It may also be big among some Wesleyans...a lot of the hymns adapted for shape-note singing were originally written by Charles Wesley.)

Well, I replied that most of this music really resonates with the Catholic sensibility. First of all, the Celtic-influenced ethereal quality of the music resonates with my half-Irish soul, LOL. And then, too, the pietistic lyrics--especially the lyrics by Charles Wesley--are very Catholick-y, if that makes any sense. If the Wesleys had been Catholics, they would have been very pietistic Catholics, devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and all that. (I think they were closet-crypto-Catholics, actually, though they didn't realize it themselves!) Also, the recurring theme in shape-note hymns--the yearning for Heaven--is universal; it crosses all confessional boundaries. This is not the music of 19th-century backwoods Baptists. It is the music of the human soul.

And on that note (no pun intended!), I will end this pedantic tome!


More later...on this subject and on any others that strike my fancy.

UPDATE: My pastor surprised me by saying that he liked the most authentic CD best: the recording by the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers. He said it reminded him of liturgical music--oriented toward God, not man; a form of worship rather than a performance. Well, it's certainy that! ;)

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Finally Getting Around to Doing Something With This Blog

Hello, world. I have finally summoned up the energy to do something with this blog. Aren't you thrilled? ;)

First, a note about the blog title. It's what the nibs call a Literary Allusion. It refers to a novel by P.G. Wodehouse entitled Leave It to Psmith. If you enjoy laughing your head off, I would recommend that you read this novel. It's one of Wodehouse's funniest and silliest. And it contains the juiciest send-up of modern poetry ever. Which is where "Across the pale parabola of joy" comes in. But I won't spoil it for you. Go to your local library or mega bookstore and get the novel itself. Then sit back and enjoy.

Now, about this blog. If even two people end up reading it, I will just about die of shock. But isn't the point of a blog to spout off into the black hole of cyberspace? Having an audience is irrelevant. Nice, but not strictly necessary. It would be lovely if a few kindred spirits were to find their way here via Mr. Google. But I'm not holding my breath.

About me, briefly. I'm originally from Boston, but now I live in rural North Carolina (a/k/a God's Country). I've been married to my soul-mate for 26 years. We have two handsome, strapping teenage boys, whom we homeschool. I'm a devout Catholic, and I plan to write a lot about Jesus and Mary and all that Catholic Stuff. I'm also the artsy-fartsy type, so I'll write some about art and opera and Jane Austen and such. I've been an advertising copywriter for nearly 28 years now. Right now I work as a catalog / e-commerce writer for a great big huge apparel company. I promise not to write about work. At least, not much.

My current passion is Sacred Harp singing (a/k/a "shape note"), so I'll probably write a lot about that. I guess you could say I have eclectic interests -- from the Sacred Heart to the Sacred Harp, so to speak -- but, to some extent, that's just part and parcel of being a Catholic here in the Bible Belt, I guess.

OK, more later.