Sunday, September 25, 2005

After the second day of the 16th Annual Minnesota State Sacred Harp Singing Convention

The Sacred Harp singing convention is now over. I'm happy, but not ecstatic as is sometimes the case. Maybe it's because of this nasty cold I caught Friday night. (I often get sick after singing Sacred Harp because my throat gets raw and forms a welcome rest stop for germs of all sorts, but here I got sick early.)

I was at meeting from 8:30 until about 11, so I arrived at the town hall at Murphy's Landing just as the memorial lesson was being given. It is one of my favorite moments at a singing. Throughout the first day-and-a-half of the singing, singers are invited to write down on a list the names of singers who have died during the past year, and those who are sick or shut-in and aren’t at the singing. At the appointed time, just before dinner on Sunday, one or two singers rise to read the lists of names. They then give a brief testimony, or devotional talk, usually expressing the group’s love for those who can’t be there and a profound gratitude for the continuity of the tradition over time and space and the hope of seeing them all again on the other side. Two songs are then sung, one for those who have passed on, and one for the sick and shut-ins. There were names of venerable and well-loved singers from the south on the shut-in list this year, and there were few in the room who didn't remember them being here with us in the past, admonishing us (among other things) to "get your nose out of the book and watch your leader!"

The roll is not strictly limited to Sacred Harp singers; many add the names of loved ones, and sometimes the name of a well known person related in some indirect way to Sacred Harp– Helen Schneyer, for example, was remembered today. Another singer I know named his 43-year old brother-in-law who recently died suddenly in a freak accident. I wrote down the name of my friend, Lou Ann, who was not, as far as I know, a Sacred Harp enthusiast, but who I did shed a tear for and who I hope to see again in another place.

When I have co-led week-long Sacred Harp workshops at the FGC Gathering, we've incorporated a memorial lesson -- modified for the circumstances -- on the second-to-last day. In the workshop setting, we ask that Friends speak the names out of the silent worship. We forego vocal ministry and sing a song or two.

The first time we did this, in 1998, I was stunned at the large number of Friends in the workshop who called out the names of family members and friends who had met violent deaths at the hands of others. It lent a particular tone of grief to that lesson, not only for those named, but for the too many who face a similar fate every day. Then we sang number 122, All is Well (v3: Hark! Hark! My Lord, my Lord and Master’s voice, calls away, calls away! I soon shall see – enjoy my happy choice, Why delay, why delay? Farewell, my friends, adieu, adieu, I can no longer stay with you, My glitt’ring crown appears in view, All is well, all is well.”)

Unfortunately, I can’t remember the songs we sang today -- I don't think I knew either of them particularly well, though I liked singing them today. I was taking some notes (I have a dickens of a time remembering the numbers or names of songs, or those that have a particular phrase or musical quality that I like, so I've begun to jot notes into a small book) but neglected to write the numbers down of the two we sang.

But I was moved by one song we sang a little later in the afternoon that could have been sung as a memorial lesson. I don’t remember ever singing it before, number 339 When I am Gone. It had an unusual rhythmic twist to it that I liked.

But as I write this and sang it to myself, I made a discovery: The tenor line, the melody, is the old chestnut Long, Long Agothat you probably learned early in your career as a piano or flutephone player. And, as I read the words again tonight, they sound like they’re from the stream of sentimentalism that forms part of the Sacred Harp (“v2: Plant you a rose that shall bloom o’er my grave, When I am gone, When I am gone; Sing a sweet song such as angels may have, When I am gone, When I am gone.) But singing the bass line this afternoon, I didn’t realize this. (I often don't know the tenor-melody line in the songs we sing untill I sing them again at home.) I was taken by the unusual rhythmical turns it takes at times. Had I sung the tenor, I probably wouldn’t have like the song, but singing the bass line for the first time, I loved it.

Near the end of meeting this morning, when we’re invited to share thoughts that didn’t “arise to the level of vocal ministry,” I shared two lines from a song we sang yesterday that I hadn’t remembered singing before, and which would also serve as a memorial song. It is number 499 At Rest. Unfortunately, I misquoted the words in meeting today (I got them from my notes, apparently). I said the lines were “There is more to life than life, and more to death than death.” The lines really say: ‘Tis not the whole of life to live nor all of death to die.” Much better put.

Today, the convention was less well attended than ones past and seemed just a bit subdued to me. It may have been partly due to a heavy mist that hung over the area all day, but also there were few from the south there, and fewer from singing centers like Chicago and St. Louis who often bring great enthusiasm and energy. But I didn't feel disappointed in the least. It was grand seeing again those who returned again, and meeting other Twin Cities singers who only sing at the convention (I would be in this category, almost, for the past few years). There is such sweetness to these gatherings, such genuine love and affection and hospitality. It is hard to describe the sense of connectedness one feels with other singers, not only in the here and now, but over time and space. Especially at Murphy's Landing's Town Hall where the Sunday singing was held, it was not at all hard to imagine a class of similar singers a hundred or even two years ago singing the same songs, with the same accents and energy, as we did today. I always feel renewed after a convention. One of the byproducts is that my cynicism going into temporary hibernation for awhile and my sense of hope returns.

(And, I got the good news that my friend Robin may be able to co-lead the FGC workshop with me after all.)

1 comment:

Linda Selph said...

Hi Paul,
I met you this summer at the FGC Sacred Harp singings. I found your blog through a friend's (will.whim), and have been enjoying reading your posts about Sacred Harp and Quakerism.
So, are you leading a workshop in Seattle?