A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Category Archives: Music

The Trumpet, Volume 1, Issue 2

There are more details at the http://SingTheTrumpet.com, but let me make a quick announcement that The Trumpet Vol 1, Issue 2 is available:

I’ve been working on this pretty intensively for about a week.

Singing with

This weekend my good friend Samuel Sommers and I traveled south to sing shape note music. It’s Sam’s usual practice to go south on the first Sunday in May and the Saturday before to sing in Huntsville, Alabama on the Saturday and then in Dutton, Alabama for the Dedication Sunday at Shady Grove church, and he graciously invited me along.

The massive storms and numerous tornadoes that hit Alabama changed our plans. We received an email from David Ivey saying that the Huntsville singing was cancelled because people were being asked to cancel meetings and there was no electricity at the venue. I was disappointed not to sing with the Iveys, but it opened up the opportunity to sing at Harrod’s Creek Church in Brownsboro, Kentucky (just outside Louisville). This was first singing there to be held without Bob Meek, the singing’s founder, and it was held in his memory. It was good to be able to see people gathered to remember Bob and sing the music he loved and so deeply supported, and to fellowship with Pat Meek and the other singers who were feeling his loss. Sam and I stayed Saturday only; I understand from others that the memorial on Sunday was very moving.

We weren’t sure what we should do about Sunday. Eventually, though, we got through to Brad Bahler of Indiana, who, along with wife Karen and son John, had gone down to stay with Syble and Bill Adams. Syble insisted that we come, though the church was without electricity. Mark Brown, who leads music at Shady Grove, had pointed out that when the church was built, it didn’t have electricity, so they probably could get along without it. We arrived a little after 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, and, after greeting the Adamses and their families, helped set up–not many people had arrived, and so we assumed there wouldn’t be many come. Decoration Day is the day families gather to clean the gravestones, place flowers on the graves, and sing in memory of the beloved dead. While we waited for Mark to come in to start the singing, we sang a few songs, including Martin with the words by Charles Wesley:

Jesus, Lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high!
Hide me, Oh my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide;
Oh receive my soul at last.

It was a liminal, holy space, between death and life, between memory and news, between worry and comfort, between safety and loss, between capriciousness and care. Everyone had a story about the storm’s destruction. No one from the church died in the storms, for which all were so grateful. The home of the church’s pastor, Brother Ben, was destroyed, the family having huddled underneath an overturned couch as their home was torn apart around them. One of Syble’s daughters and her son were driving home, in separate cars, but together, when the daughter saw a funnel cloud in her rear-view mirror. Her son, a new driver, was ahead of her, and stopped at a red light, which he didn’t run, because he was afraid what his mother would think. She finally signaled to him to go, hoping to outrace the tornado. Fortunately, the funnel went up into the sky, and hopped over them, and they were saved. People testified to the goodness of neighbors and the providence of God. One man deeply felt a survivor’s guilt for coming through without damage.

The memorial singing was shorter than usual, just the morning, but deeply felt. The usual “dinner on the grounds” was minimal, by Southern standards, but more than amply adequate, featuring ham sandwiches and peanut butter cake (Syble found time to make a cake sometime between when the electricity went on at her house around ten p.m. the night before and the start of the singing). Most people did not stay, but went back to their homes and neighbors. About a dozen of us ate together, the Adamses kindly showing us their hospitality, but also, I believe, glad to have us there, both as a respite from the storm terrors, but also as a reminder of the love that many felt for them.

Stopping time

I just noticed that Richard Stoddard posted a recording of my leading Few Happy Matches at Camp Fasola in 2009 (the recording was done by Al McCready). This is a tune I had been leading a lot at Sacred Harp singings and conventions in 2009; I still like it. One silly reason is that the tune’s title indicates a goal of a good search engine. The title actually comes from an Isaac Watts poem about the difficulty of good marriage matches, according to Warren Steele.

In the 1991 Denson edition of the Sacred Harp, there is a fermata in the antepenultimate measure; I spent a long time thinking about how long to hold this. It is sometimes held just the shortest extra time. But Wade Kotter had brought an early copy of the Sacred Harp to the singing, and I noticed that there was no fermata, but two tied-half notes. You can see this for yourself at the online version of BF White’s 1860 edition of the Sacred Harp at Michigan State; a similar thing is true of the version in the Southern Harmony (where the tune is called “Willoughby,” from whence BF White might easily have taken it.

This gave me justification for holding it for a longish time. In fact, Tom Malone (dear friend and singing master) has suggested that a fermata stops time, a very interesting philosophical puzzle. Listening to Few Happy Matches now is very suggestive. It does feel like time is being stopped as we sing who sometimes are afraid to die.

It may be that you’ll experience time being stopped as you listen or sing this tune.

Were children again: Report from Camp Fasola, 2009, Session 1 (Adults Emphasis)

At nearly the last minute, Tom Malone suggested that we drive down to Camp Fasola on the Sunday before Camp began in the evening, and return on Thursday, the last day of Camp. I had to work on Friday (“Work—the curse of the singing class,” quipped Richard Schmeidler at dinner one day), and Tom is in the midst of a move back east. So, it was convenient to do this—as if driving 13 hours one way is anyone’s idea of ‘convenient.’ Still we jabbered away and then were blessed to run into Joyce Walton at the memorial marker to Seaborn and and Thomas Denson at the Winston Country Courthouse in Double Springs, Alabama (near camp), and things just keep getting better.

Camp McDowell is surprisingly posh. The “cabins” contained a large (air conditioned) common area with a fridge, sink, tables, and (most importantly) a coffee maker with coffee provided. The rooms had two beds, their own washroom with shower, and an in-window air conditioner (not really needed during our stay, we still appreciated its promise). Unfortunately, much of this requires electricity, and major storms had moved into the area earlier in the day; so, all the lights and air conditioning and water were off. The undefeatable Camp staff still managed to pull together food for us. We had an evening singing in the beautiful chapel, which was cut a bit short so we could walk back to the cabins before dark descended. Just before “lights out,” the lights came on, so all was well.

During the three days of class, many of us started the day singing out of the words only Lloyd’s Hymnal with Eugene Forbes, most of us sitting in comfortable rocking chairs. It was a delight to see Eugene at Camp; I’d met him two years previously, but neither he nor I were able to attend Camp last year. Then a hearty breakfast (note to northern singers: when eating grits, think “polenta,” not “cream of wheat,” and you will be delighted). And then, on to classes. Oh, there were so many good ones! You can see for yourself by looking at the schedule. My only regret this year was several programs I was unable to attend.

I’d say a major theme of the Camp was paying attention to the Rudiments, the teaching (found in the beginning of our tunebooks) of the basics of time, tune and accent. There were some very new singers there (one man, I believe, had never sung this music at all), and others had been singing for years. But under the leadership of the Camp teachers, we “were children again” and learned to sing better. I don’t have time to describe all of what we learned, but here are two vignettes. Several teachers described the importance of accent: that is, the “stress of voice or emphasis on one part of a sentence, strain or measure, more than another.” Familiar tunes became new again as we began to sing them with the accenting principles described in the rudiments. A second class highlight for me was Aldo Ceresa’s session, “And then I’ll be at rest,” where we paid close attention to the rests in the music: resting where we’re instructed to rest; starting and stopping those rests together; and singing when we’re instructed to sing. Several tunes came alive to me in new ways. Others will have different favorite learning moments, but these are a couple of mine.

There were three thematic sessions. On Monday, Harry Eskew commemorating the 200th birthday of William “Singing Billy” Walker (who was born the same year as Lincoln and Darwin). On Tuesday, Tom Malone did a eulogistic lesson on the songs of Hugh McGraw, who gave us the gift of his presence at Camp. There was also a slideshow of Hugh McGraw’s life at lunch immediately before the lesson, including high school pictures of the young man anointed “cutest boy” by his class. It was a good thing to be able to pay our respect to Hugh, and many heartfelt words were said during the lesson by Richard DeLong, Joyce Walton and others. On Wednesday, Tom Malone and Sandra Wikinson also did a eulogistic lesson on the Kitchens family, especially the life and music of Elder J.E. Kitchens (1912-1979), a Sacred Harp singer and composer, and former president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. Several members of the Kitchens family, including his four daughters, were present. There are three tunes by Kitchens in the Denson book (279, 512, 568), and we sang from these as well as other tunes, including the very delightful God-given tune “Oh, Come With Me,” a baptismal meditation on Song of Solomon 4:8 and other scriptural images.

And the evening singing sessions. David Ivey promised us that our singing would get better over the three days, and his promise was kept. Everyone will have his or her own favorite moments, but watching Miss Josie Hyde lead 507 (Sermon on the Mount) on Wednesday night was surely a lesson. (There is a YouTube video of Miss Josie leading 507 at the Aldridge Memorial Singing right before Camp).

Other highlights including singing on the porch with Cheryl and Rick Foreman (in the dark because of another power outage); the interesting tunes and amazing sight-singing ability of the others at Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg’s “Composium” (new compositions singing); and “The First Annual No Book Rocking Chair Convention,” about which perhaps little should be said, except that I’ll never think of David Ivey in quite the same way again. And you might think that Jeff Sheppard could not jig, but you might be surprised.

I will fail if I try to do my thank yous properly, but I am grateful for David Ivey’s leadership in putting Camp together, and Karen Ivey’s yeowomanly efforts to make Camp a welcoming and comfortable place. I’m thankful for the Camp McDowell staff who literally guided us through storms. I’m thankful for the excellent teachers and the willing students. And I’m thankful for the composers and authors and compilers and teachers of this music.

Renewing Mennonite communal worship

A response to R Dean Hudgens’s Tongues and Tribes: Musical Change in a Mennonite Congregation.

I am very, very grateful for the time I spent at Reba Place Church (1990-1996, 1998 or so), and loved the music there. I was very grateful for the intentional way that the call to anti-racism worked itself out in music and worship. This included being part of the gospel choir, which developed my spirit and my musical abilities and helped me on an anti-racist path.

Still, I think it is fair to say that Reba Place Church, and the Mennonite Church as a whole, has missed important opportunities to provide space for people to worship in community.

Worship has turned more into a performance with some audience participation than the people of God worshipping together. In my experience, this is true in many Mennonite (and non-Mennonite congregations), even when the worship team is not very talented. You have, at the center, a choir, or worship team, or a talented soloist, which is the focus of the whole audience/congregation. (This is somewhat exacerbated at Reba, which attracts many talented people, including talented musicians.) I think that even the humblest of God’s servants cannot withstand the pressure to perform well for the audience rather than their stated goal of *leading* worship.

But other models are available. One is reclamation: reclaiming the a cappella heritage of European Mennonites and African-American heritages of camp meeting music, “Dr. Watt’s music” and spirituals. Another is engaging with contemporary shape note practitioners who also have a long history in community singing and practical pedagogy. Another is engaging with African and African-Mennonite communal singing and worship practices.

Unless music worship leaders of a church see as the major responsibility of their leadership to help the community to worship and to develop the community’s ability to worship through music, churches will naturally accept the performer/audience model. It is the model of popular culture, and it is the model accepted by almost all music education (including Mennonite musical education). It is a Power.

But Mennonites used to teach one another to sing. Mennonites used to have singing schools. Mennonites used to think it important to sing together. I think it is time for Mennonites to reclaim this as an active, living spiritual practice. I could hope that Reba would be a leader in doing this in a ‘catholic’ and anti-racist way.

Kalamazoo to Sitka?

I’ve been thinking about traveling to Sitka, Alaska using my frequent flyer miles. But here’s what Northwest suggests a trip would look like there-and-back-again:

And that’s just to get to Juneau! I guess I won’t be going to Sitka. Unless Sarah Palin is offering rides.

First mention: Sacred Harp

Besides what must be a playful reference to a fake invention, the “Sacred Harp of Eloquence,” and a brief mention in a letter to the editor, the first mention of the Sacred Harp in the New York Times comes in a review of Eleanor de al Vergne Risley’s “The Road to Wildcat: A Tale of Southern Mountaineering,” a memoir of her travels; the reviewer says she went to the ‘Appalachian foothills of Alabama and then went on to the mountain country.” The anonymous reviewer writes:

The only pleasureable activities of the hill people, one gathers from Mrs. Risley’s pages, are singing and dancing. And one is not sure how far the word “pleasurable” may properly apply in respect to the “sings.” These community affairs, at which between one and two thousand persons may assemble, are virtually confined to religious singing, and are undertaken in the hope of “sanctifying” the neighborhood. Sometimes these “sings” lead to disputes which are, no doubt, important to the primitive people gathered together, however amusing they may seem to the classist Eastern snob sophisticated. Mrs. Risley gives the views of the president of the singing society on one of the points at issue.

The president informed me (she writes) that a dispute rages between the followers of the “Sacred Harp” book and another called, I think, “Christian Harmony.” The bone of contention was alto. The president himself did not hold with alto. But, as six counties were represented at the Sing, he was for compromise, and used both books. He told me that in a Sacred Harp Sing only four notes were permitted–mi, fay, sic, sol and la; that the four-note system originated at Pentecost where the Disciples just naturally burst into song; and that for his part he did not believe that there was an alto present.

And “The Road to Wildcat” is filled with just such humanly effective scenes as this of the singing meeting. Incidentally, it might be added that the swaying and crooning and bellowing would go on all night, and the sing might even last for days. Along with the rationalizing on religion in England in the eighteeth century there was also this emotional side; the followers of John Wesley started the revivialistic idea.

Well! What to make of that? Did the president really think the shapes were given at Pentecost (seems unlikely)? Did the singings go on overnight (also seems unlikely)? Did they ‘sway’ (also unlikely)? Did a singing really have over 1,000 people?

Golden Gate Singing 2008 &c.

I enjoyed the Golden Gate Sacred Harp Singing this past week in San Francisco, and even managed to record the afternoon session (not a great recording, but not terrible either; the altos were strong, but perhaps not as strong as they sound in the recording). The singing was chaired by Natalia Cecire, who is working on a PhD in English at U.C. Berkeley.

I found a great quotation, by the way, in Natalia’s draft of a MLA presentation she gave, “From Stone Tablet to Pensieve: Media and History in Children’s Fantasy“:

[J.K.] Rowling [in the Harry Potter books] fashions a world of superior hypermimesis, an information culture enhanced by the magic, which, when sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from technology.

It’s great fun to sing in a convention organized by Natalia. Not only did it run like clockwork, she’s apt to lean over and point out that the images in the 19th century text of Peace and Joy also appear in the Old English poem, The Dream of the Rood:

Peace and Joy:

From the cross the radiance streaming
Adds more luster to the day.

The Dream of the Rood:

Listen! The choicest of visions I wish to tell,
which came as a dream in middle-night,
after voice-bearers lay at rest.
It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree
born aloft, wound round by light,
brightest of beams.

Harmonia Sacra online

Here’s a labor of love: the Harmonia Sacra online.

The Harmonia Sacra is a shape-note tunebook in the Mennonite tradition. Originally published in 1832 by Joseph Funk as A Compilation of Genuine Church Music, it has gone through twenty-six editions. This on-line version provides both seven-shape and four-shape (“Sacred Harp”-style) versions of tunes.

I created a website (static website, but generated with Ruby) using James Nelson Gingerich’s excellent newly typeset versions of this tune book.

Blessed Hope Services

The kind people at Blessed Hope Old Regular Baptist Church in Liberty Kentucky have been making their worship services available online, including lots of ‘lined out’ hymns. The general website is at ‘Blessed Hope Services‘. One very nice hymn is ‘Beside the gospel pool’ (mp3). I love how you can often hear the children in the background.