Category Archives: Arts: roots music

Aloha Xmas

Ms. M and Oz let us know that they were going to hear slack-key guitarist Patrick Landeza play Hawai’ian Christmas music at the San Leandro Public Library, and would we like to meet them there? I found out that Herb Ohta Jr. would be playing too — Herb Ohta Jr., son of Ohta-san himself and one of the best ‘ukulelists alive! — and told Carol that we had to go.

We arrived in time to eat the Hawai’ian dinner plate (rice, chicken teriyaki, macaroni salad, but no spam). The hall was filling up, and it was a nice crowd — older people, middle-aged people, young parents, kids. Haoles were definitely a minority. By the time Ms. M and Oz showed up, there were some two hundred people in the hall and we could not find seats together.

Carol entered us in the raffle, and before the music started Patrick Landeza raffled off several items. A young girl got a bag for wine bottles. Next to be raffled off was a little bag with a bright floral pattern, obviously perfect for a young girl. Landeza joked that it was a “man purse,” then started laughing when he pulled out the name: “It’s going to a man: Dan Harper!” I went up and claimed my little floral purse. And against all odds, Carol also won something in the raffle: a little Hawai’ian wreath for a Christmas tree ornament.

The music was perfect Christmas music — what could be better than traditional Hawai’ian songs at Christmas time? What could be better than hearing a master like Herb Ohta Jr. play “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on the ‘ukulele? What could be better than hearing “Silent Night” sung in Hawai’ian, and interpreted by a hula dancer? And to top it all off, I got my man purse signed by Patrick Landeza and Herb Ohta Jr.:

What I do in my spare time

One of my pastimes is singing Sacred Harp music, traditional American four-part sacred song. It is rough, loud, driving music, sort of like hardcore punk rock for church, with the same punk anyone-can-do-it ethos. The soundtrack of the video below is a live recording from last Saturday’s Golden Gate All-Day Singing (the visuals are just random photos from the same event).

A little bit of explanation: (1) In Sacred Harp music, you almost always sing through each song first with four solfege syllables: fa, sol, la, and mi. Since each part is singing their own solfege syllables, this can sound like some bizarre Phillip Glass opera. (2) The music is loud — my ear were ringing by the end of the day — so to get the full effect, plug in your earphones and crank up the sound. (3) If you want to know more, visit If you don’t want to know more, and instead want to run screaming in the other direction at the unpolished sound of this roots music, feel free to do so at any time.

Bay area singing event

If you’re in the Bay area, come check out the sixth annual Golden Gate Sacred Harp singing in Berkeley this Saturday, April 24. You’ll experience singing from an American tradition of sacred music that can be traced back to the 18th century, when New England ministers and musicians banded together to improve the poor quality of congregational singing in their day.

Sacred Harp singing is bold and loud, full-throated singing with a strong rhythmic drive that’ll get your feet tapping. According to this short video, it is increasingly being sung by “young urbanites.” (And yes, my regular Sacred Harp group has a much greater percentage of people under 30 than does my Unitarian Universalist church.)

We’ll be at the Finnish Brotherhood Hall, 1970 Chestnut Street, Berkeley (close to BART). Look for me at the registration table mid-morning. Free and open to the public — beginners welcome — loaner books available. Check out the website for all the details:

Country Joe, a UU?

A ten-year-old thread on the Mudcat folk music Web site* claims that both Country Joe MacDonald and Melanie belonged to Liberal Religious Youth, the old Unitarian Universalist youth organization.

Can any of you out there confirm that this is true? I’m sure neither one is still a Unitarian Universalist, but it would still be fun if they were in LRY.


* This was a thread on folk musicians with a Unitarian Universalist connection who used their music to promote social justice. The obvious names came up: Pete Seeger, Malvina Reynolds, Utah Phillips, Ric Masten, Fred Small, along with other less well-known folkies. They missed Daryl Anger, but he only started attending a UU church in 2004.

Nonprofit Christmas shopping

For many nonprofit institutions, this is not going to be a very merry Christmas. Take Sing Out!, for example, a nonprofit devoted to supporting folk music, and to “making music a part of our everyday lives.” Over the years, Sing Out! has published songs from people like Woodie Guthrie, Pat Humphries, Emmylou Harris, Mississippi John Hurt, Cordelia’s Dad, Pete Seeger, etc., etc. Like Seeger, Sing Out! gives lots of emphasis to socially conscious songs and music. It’s a good organization. I want them to survive.

Well, I don’t have much money this year, but I always try to do some charitable giving at Christmas time — after I give money to Heifer Project, I’m thinking maybe I’ll give give some money to Sing Out!. I suppose if I were a Christmas-gift-giver, I could give subscriptions to Sing Out! magazine, or buy a few Rise Up Singing books to give as gifts.

I suppose the mall owners and the big box stores need us to shop there so they can pay their workers starvation wages. But I think maybe I’ll spend my small Christmas budget with nonprofit organizations instead.

You know you want to try this.

Bay Area Sacred Harp (BASH), the people I sing with most Monday nights, will be singing at the open house at Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse this Saturday. We’ll be there from 2-4 p.m. singing traditional 18th-20th C. American 4-part harmony — low-stress workshop, some instruction by BASH’s experienced singers, lots of (slow) singing, fun people to hang out with. And hey, it’s free.

Why do we sing in worship services?

So why do we sing in worship services? My Unitarian Universalist tradition comes out of Calvinism, and we started singing because John Calvin said we should sing the Psalms — you know, sing because it’s in the Bible. Well, now we’re post-Christian, and some of us are very critical of the Bible, so why do we sing in worship services?

I think many Unitarian Universalists sing in worship services because it’s a chance to promote their favorite theological doctrine. Shades of John Calvin! The humanists in our midst like to sing songs that extol the virtues of humanism, and they pout when there are songs that mention God. The theists and Christians in our midst want to hold on to the tradition of Unitarian Christianity and Universalist Christianity, and they pout when they have to sing songs that don’t mention God.

Maybe this is why I like to sing with the Pagans and the New Age types. They just sing, and it’s powerful, and changes the way you think and feel. They know that “sustained singing is an ancient technique for creating altered states of consciousness through hyperventilation, elevated blood oxygen, and cranial and somatic vibration” (Marini, Sacred Song in America, 93). They know you don’t have to be a trained singer to get all these benefits. And the Pagans know that you when you sing about topics like birth and death and the ultimate meaning of life, you will be transformed. I also like to sing with Sacred Harp groups for exactly the same reasons. Not because I am in complete doctrinal or theological agreement with Pagans, New Agers, or Sacred Harp singers, but because I want to sing with people who don’t care what you sound like and who know that singing is supposed to transform you.

A recent article in the Portland Oregonian makes this point eloquently. Read it and — well, yes, read it and weep. I did. I wish typical Unitarian Universalist hymn singing affected me like that….

“The sound of all of us…”

Last summer I learned a song that has stuck with me ever since. I was at a religious education summer conference, and Laurie Loosigian taught us “This Is the Sound of One Voice,” written by Ruth Moody of the Wailing Jennies. The melody reminds me of white spirituals, and it easy to harmonize. The lyrics sound equally good around a campfire or in a liberal church. The first verse says:

This is the sound of one voice,
One spirit, one voice,
The sound of one who makes a choice;
This is the sound of one voice.

The second and third verses are about two voices and then three voices singing together, and then the song says:

This is the sound of all of us:
Singing with love and the will to trust,
Leave the rest behind it will turn to dust;
This is the sound of all of us.

There’s an online video of the Wailing Jennies singing the song here. They sing in close harmony, with the usual slightly breathy voices of the commercial folk music circuit. I’d rather sing it full-throated, with more dispersed harmonies, and more emotion — less like commercial folk, and more like a spiritual. Either way, I think it would make a pretty good song to sing in church.