Thursday, March 16, 2006

Missouri Convention

I’ve been meaning to write & post this since I arrive home early Monday morning, but I’ve been on the run ever since. Lots has happened, lots on my mind.

Last Friday, my friend Gerry and I drove 500 miles to the Missouri State Sacred Harp Convention in Pinckney Township, Missouri (about 90 miles west of St. Louis). It was my first out-of-town Sacred Harp singing experience (other than workshops I’ve led myself), and it turned out to be as fun as I hoped it would be, and more.

When we left St. Paul, Gerry said he’d discovered that the town where he went to college, Iowa Weslyen in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, was on US Highway 218, and that the song “Mount Pleasant” was song number 218 in the Sacred Harp. So he wanted to stop by the college and sing the song.

When we got to Mount Pleasant, we went to Old Main, the music building on campus, intending to sing in front of the building. Gerry, however, urged me to see the inside. After a brief glance around, we were approached by Gerry's old music professor, Dr. Joel Brown, who greeted us fondly and enthusiastically. We expressed our interest in singing this 4-part song and lamented the lack of two more voices. Dr. Brown rose to the occassion and introduced a newer music professor, Jamie Spillane, who joined us in singing in full voice, Mount Pleasant.

There is a house not made with hands,
Eternal and on high;
And here my spirit waiting stands
Til God shall bid it fly.

It sounded GREAT in the resonant old place. It had a sweetness to it and Gerry & I couldn’t stop smiling for miles.

Pinckney Township and St. John’s UCC Church, a lovely old church from a German predecessor of that denomination. I first thought it might have been a Lutheran church because the pulpit was high on the wall, in the center, above the alter, symbolizing the Word over the sacrament, but it turns out that it was in a German branch of the several churches that united to make the UCC. On the alter was a German bible, opened to Psalm 23.

About 100-125 singers sang at any one time, with a good number of visitors sitting in the back or up in the small balcony. I recognized many of them – singers from St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City, Madison, Georgia – from their visits to Minnesota sings, and it had the feeling of a family reunion with a bunch of cousins (like Friend Peggy Senger Parson's brother), a lot like arriving at Yearly Meeting or FGC, but smaller.

It was particularly nice to see Bill Shetter, a Friend from Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting who Lovely Wife knew when she was in graduate school and who attended our Sacred Harp workshop at the Gathering in 2002. I just love seeing his long lanky frame lead a song, and hearing his strong high treble voice.

The singing was strong. The singers were experienced and moved right along, singing more than eighty songs each day. The room was resonant, but it never developed the overwhelming wall of sound that you get in some places. Nevertheless, it was easy to sing in, the country setting was beautiful, and I easily lost myself in the singing. It often felt to me as if I could have been in this same church 100 year ago, singing the same songs, in the same way, just like I do when I am in meeting for worship. I feel part of a family that extends backwards – and forwards, God willing – for centuries

One of the best things was singing songs from the new Missouri Harmony. This book, a labor of love by many in the St. Louis singing community and of scholarship by the Missouri Historical Association, reprints many (all?) of the songs from the old Missouri Harmony first published in 1820 (making it 24 years older than the Sacred Harp). It’s said that Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge sang from the Missouri Harmony in her father’s tavern in New Salem, and it was a very widely used book until supplanted by the Sacred Harp.

The new Missouri Harmony is freshly typeset and legible – which could not be said of the old facsimile reprints – and has a nice Lincoln-green cloth cover. In addition to its original contents, the new book has many new tunes composed or arranged by contemporary writers, five or six of whom were there singing with us.

Dinner on the grounds was as fine as any I’ve ever had; plenty and tasty. (The only odd thing was no fried chicken. But there were barbecued pork chops which make up for it.) When I was a boy and spent time with a family in our church who were Missouri country people, they gave me sweetened ice tea. The only place I know I can get and drink sweet tea is at Sacred Harp conventions.

Saturday was gloriously warm and spring-like, which inspired me to lead 338 on the top, Winter:
His hoary frost, His fleecy snow,
Descend and clothe the ground;
The liquid streams forbear to flow
In icy fetters bound

He sends His word, and melts the snow,
The fields no longer mourn;
He calls the warmer gales to blow,
And bids the spring return.
Sunday began with Carla, a young woman whose 20th birthday it was. She led #436, Morning Sun:

Youth, like the spring, will soon be gone,
By fleeting time or conq’ring death;
Your morning sun may set at noon,
And leave you ever in the dark.

Your sparkling eyes and blooming cheeks
Must wither like the blasted rose.
The coffin, earth, and winding sheet
Will soon your active limbs enclose.

The final chorus on this song has one of those bull-dozing alto parts that led to the expression “Alto isn’t a part, it’s an attitude.” Carla's an alto.

Morning Sun isn’t exactly the sentiment that a typical young American woman would choose to sing about on her 20th birthday, but one of the things we love about the Sacred Harp is its unsentimental telling-it-like-it-is-ness, no sugar coating. (Carla got involved in Sacred Harp singing when she saw an advertisement for a Missouri convention several years ago. She chose it as the family outing she was entitled to on her birthday, and she and her family has been singing ever since.)

On Sunday afternoon, I led #528, Showers of Blessings, the song that inspired the title of this blog.
With songs and honors sounding loud,
Address the Lord on high,
Over the heav’ns He spreads His clouds,
And waters veil the sky.

He sends His show’rs of blessing down
To cheer the plains below.
He makes the grass the mountains crown,
And corn in valleys grow.
This song was particularly appropriate since powerful storms had raged through central Missouri Saturday night and Sunday morning and threatened all afternoon.

On Sunday, before dinner, we had the traditional memorial lesson where two singers say a few simple words about those who have passed on during the previous year with whom we hope to sing again in heaven, and those who are sick and shut-in and cannot be with us. Among those we sang for were my Friends Elizabeth Watson, Mary Phillips, Charles Johnson Barbara Greenler. Had I known, I would have added Tom Fox as well.

I don’t remember what songs we sang for the memorial lesson, but after I arrived home and heard of Tom’s death I know which one I would have chosen: #547, Granville (music composed by Judy Hauff, who was with us in Missouri):
Remember, Lord, our mortal state;
How frail our lives! How short the date!
Where is the man that draws his breath,
Safe from disease, secure from death?

Lord, while we see whole nations die,
Our flesh and sense repine and cry;
Will Death forever rage and reign?”
Or hast thou made mankind in vain?
When it was over we drove north, full of life and love and pork chops. We anticipated overnighting in Iowa if we didn’t feel like driving all the way that night, but when we figured we’d make it by 1 o’clock we decided to press ahead. And we’re glad we did. Our last hour or two was through the sleety precursor of the biggest snowfall of the season; if we’d stopped Sunday night, we’d never have made it home on Monday.

Oh my this has gone on a bit, and I’ve said nothing of our wild goose chase for a fish dinner on Friday night, the wonderfully winding and hilly country roads we drove, the winery, Daniel and Rachel Boone’s original gravesite, red-tail hawks, St. John Church’s Methodist doppelganger (right down to the sheet metal steeple, red doors, and hand water pump) a mile up Highway U, the sinking feeling I had for a couple of hours when I thought my iBook had been stolen, the camera that broke, Hermann Mo., or the Subway girls in Owatonna who fed us our last supper. It’s enough to say, for now, that it was a great adventure of a kind I haven’t had for a long time.

(Revised 3-18 to clear up some dumb errors.)


Liz Opp said...

Hey Paul.

Your recent posts about your love of Sacred Harp just might be what it takes to pull me into your workshop at Gathering if the one I signed up for is a bust. We'll see... Glad you and Gerry had such a good time and made it home safe before the snowstorm struck.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Peggy Senger Parsons said...

SO nice to know that my elder brother is staying out of trouble.;)

on hesitating and losing -

Some of us in the NW who are not part of FGC never really had a chance to register. I was waiting for a paper invitation.

Being close as we are - it may not be impossible for us to ride up and drop in for a day. If we do I will find the singers, no doubt. But the whole weeks stay is now off of my agenda.

Robin M. said...

Peggy, get your name on the waiting list. You never know. They are still working on getting more spaces. COME!


Anonymous said...

[Milwaukee/Madison Meeting] Sad News of the Death of Barbara Greenler

Dear Ones,

It is with sadness that we write to tell you that Barbara passed away last night. She died calmly in her sleep while at home. In
the last days she had continued to weaken but seemed to be at peace with her approaching death.

All of us, including Barbara have deeply appreciated the connections, thoughts and care expressed in the cards and letters. We feel powerfully supported by your prayers and love.

We will send out memorial service information in the next days.


Bob, Lee, Karen, Robin and their families