Monthly Archives: April 2008

Easy four-part gospel

One of the workshops I took at the New England Folk Festival this past weekend was called “Easy Four Part Gospel.” The workshop was led by Sol Weber, who is best known for his monumental collection of rounds. Maybe forty people showed up for the workshop, Sol Weber divided us into four sections — soprano, alto, tenor, bass — and he handed out sheet music. For the first number, he taught us the four different parts, but after that we just sight-read the music.

Now, I am not a great singer, and while I can read music I don’t do sight-singing. But when I discovered that when I was sitting with maybe ten other people, at least three of whom do know how to sight-sing, I could sight-sing the bass part of an easy gospel song without too much trouble. It was a classic example of how the shared knowledge of a group can help a deficient individual (me, in this case) perform above his/her level of ordinary competence.

Plus it was a heck of a lot of fun. So now I’m wondering if I can teach others at church how to sing four-part gospel songs, just so I can have the fun of singing that music once again….

Universalist “conversion” experience

Turns out Julia Ward Howe was emotionally a universalist, and had a fairly emotional “conversion experience”. When she recalled the moment when she discovered liberal religion, she emphasized the joy she found in the universalism of her Unitarian faith:

“Who can say what joy there is in the rehabilitation of human nature, which is one essential condition of the liberal Christian faith? I had been trained to think that all mankind were by nature low, vile, and wicked. Only a chosen few, by a rare and difficult spiritual operation, could be rescued from the doom of a perpetual dwelling with the enemies of God, a perpetual participation in the torments ‘prepared for them from the beginning of the world.’ The rapture of this new freedom [i.e., her new Unitarian faith] of this enlarged brotherhood, which made all men akin to the Divine Father of all, every religion, however ignorant, the expression of a sincere and availing worship, might well produce in the neophyte an exhilaration bordering upon ecstasy. The exclusive doctrine which had made Christianity, and special forms of it, the only way of spiritual redemption, now appeared to me to commend itself as little to human reason as to human affection. I felt that we could not rightly honor our dear Christ by immolating at his shrine the souls of myriads of our fellows born under the widely diverse influences which could not be thought of as existing unwilled by the supreme Providence.” [Reminiscences: 1819-1899, p. 207; gender-specific language in the original, obviously.]

One last comment: I believe that many newcomers to Unitarian Universalism today experience the same kind of joy at their discovery of this liberal faith as did Julia Ward Howe. Theological details may differ, but the joy at realizing that no one is going to be damned to eternal punishment still remains fresh.

Who’s the greenest of them all? (Cities!)

Writing for the BBC, U.S. landscape architect Martha Schwartz states that the current focus on green building ignores the fact that we need a holistic approach to sustainable design. She suggests that we should focus more on well-designed cities than on individual buildings, because “the most sustainable form of human habitation is the city…. Encouraging people to live side by side more closely will help the local ecology to flourish, because the community can utilise superior water stations and sewage treatment plants, as well as improving electricity consumption patterns.” Link.

I’d be willing to bet that if you take a holistic point of view, you’d find that a LEEDS certified building that is erected in a greenfields development on the site of a former farm harms the environment far more than a conventional building in the middle of a city….

Shape note singing & today’s hymnody

At the New England Folk Festival, one of the workshops I attended was an introduction to shape note singing. Shape note singing is a tradition of hymn singing that stretches back to the singing schools established by North American ministers in the second half of the 18th C. as a way to improve congregational singing. The shape note tradition began in New England with composers like William Billings (1746-1800) of Boston, moved south where it produced books like The Southern Harmony in 1854, and held on into the 20th C. in Appalachia and a few other out-of-the-way regions. Finally, starting about 1975 shape note singing enjoyed a nation-wide renaissance with singing groups from New England to California (link to list of regional singings). Thus shape note singing is an indigenous North American musical tradition with an unbroken two-and-a-quarter-century history.

At the workshop I attended, I learned the basics of one shape-note tradition. The music is sung in four parts (sometimes three parts) and is printed in a distinctive style of musical notation where the note-heads have different shapes depending on the pitch. The singing style is full-throated and open, even a little nasal. The singers are always arranged in a square divided into four sections: tenors or leads (they carry the melody) in one section; sopranos or trebles to their right; altos to the right of sopranos; and basses to the right of the altos and the left of the leads. The center of this square is left open and whoever is leading a given hymn stands in the center facing the tenors, and beats time (the front row of tenors also beat time for those who can’t see the song leader).

As a working minister, what really struck me is the gap between singing shape-note hymns for an hour sitting in a square on the one hand, and the realities of incorporating hymn-singing into real-life liturgy on the other hand. Shape-note singing started as a singing school, a way to teach ordinary people how to sight-read four-part harmony; the singing master would come to your town for six weeks or some months, and lots of people would learn how to sing shape-note hymns, and then the singing master would go away and (in theory, at least) a big percentage of your congregation would have some basic music skills. Of course, when you use shape-note hymns in a worship service, I can’t see that you would have everyone sit in a square, and divide up your congregation by tenors, sopranos, etc. But the shape-note hymnal embodies the teaching method of the singing master.

What particularly interested me is that shape-note singing connects a specific hymnal with the pedagogical method (teaching people how to sight-read music, etc.). Hymnals such as The Scared Harp are both teaching tools, and liturgical resources. Compare that to the hymnal that I use everyday, Singing the Living Tradition, which seems to be written by musicians for other musicians; there is no concession made to the non-musician, and there are no singing schools to help people how to use that hymnal. The new Unitarian Universalist hymnal supplement, Singing the Journey, makes even less of a concession to non-musicians — most of the hymns require an accomplished or professional accompanist, some of the hymns stretch out over six pages (requiring three page turns) — while it contains some beautiful music, it’s really a hymnal for trained soloists and choir directors, not a hymnal for the average member of a congregation. Having peeked into the hymnals of other denominations, I think this is a widespread problem.

Contrast a hymnal like Singing the Journey with the group singing songbook Rise Up Singing. Rise Up includes only lyrics and simple chord progressions, no musical notation — you either have to know a song, or you have to have a song leader who can lead the song. Rise Up has a pedagogical method implicit in it:– you learn to sing by singing songs you’re already familiar with, and then when you gain confidence you’re willing to learn new songs that are led campfire-style (mostly unison singing, with simple guitar strumming) by a song leader. I’ve used both Rise Up and Singing the Living Tradition extensively, and in my experience, Rise Up is much better at empowering average singers to simply sing.

I’m not suggesting that we replace our hymnal with Rise Up Singing (although I have used Rise Up successfully in worship services). But we could learn this from shape note singing:– every hymnal could include a coherent pedagogical method that will improve the skills of the average singer.

Heard on the street

There are men sitting on the steps of the homeless shelter across the street from my office window, and every now and then I catch snippets of their conversation:

[Two newcomers walk down the street to join the group.]
“Now there’s a pair that beats a full house!”
[This is a phrase I used to hear when I worked at the lumber company.]

A: [Singing] “Take me down to the…”
B: “Put up the volume, put up the volume.”
A: [Singing] “Won’t you please take me home…”
B: “Now, remember now, people sing on the street.”

A: “I got my money, I got my money.”
B: “Oh, shut up.”

(I’m trying to write this week’s sermon, and it is not going well. I had to write these snippets down to get them out of my inner ear, in order to concentrate on hearing the sermon.)

Spare ribs, fried rice

Commenter Dwight offers these alternate words to the tune of “Spirit of Life”:

    Spare ribs, fried rice, warm pot of tea,
    Moo goo gai pan, crispy noodles dipped in duck sauce.

    Hoisin chicken, wings — hot, sticky,
    Chopsticks in hand, giving fingers tiny splinters.

    Shoots of bamboo, fortune cookie,
    Spare ribs, fried rice, pot of tea, pot of tea.

The words may seem a little choppy if you just read them, but sing them out loud and you’ll see that they fit the tune quite well. I shall sing this as a grace next time my dad and I partake of the all-you-can-eat buffet at our favorite Chinese restaurant. Thank you, Dwight.

What kind of eggs?…

I have been reading Julia Ward Howe’s Reminiscences: 1819-1899. After having been raised in a very well-to-do New York household, she married Samuel Gridley Howe in 1843, and they immediately embarked on a honeymoon trip to London (accompanied by no less than Horace Mann and Mary Peabody Mann). It was quite a wedding trip — she met Carlyle, Dickens, Landseer, and other London luminaries of that time. But what really struck me about this trip was her description of the breakfasts to which they were invited:

“The breakfast was at this time a favorite mode of entertainment, and we enjoyed many of these occasions. I remember one at the house of Sir Robert Harry Inglis, long a leading Conservative member of Parliament…. At this breakfast, he cut the loaf with his own hands, saying to each guest, ‘Yill you have a slice or a hunch?’ and cutting a slice from one end or a hunch from the other, according to the preference expressed.

“These breakfasts were not luncheons in disguise. They were given at ten, or even at half past nine o’clock. The meal usually consisted of fish, cutlets, cold bread and toast, with tea and coffee. At Samuel Roger’s I remember that plover’s eggs were served.”

I’m struck that it was worth remarking that one host actually cut the bread “with his own hands.” I’m also struck by the plover’s eggs.