Number 163 at the bottom

So on Sunday, a personal problem came up that made me cranky and upset — enough so that I had lots of crazy dreams and didn’t sleep well that night. To make it worse, Carol is back east right now, so I couldn’t talk with her about it. I woke up with a bit of a sore throat, feeling as if I was starting to come down with a cold. I called Carol and she calmed me down. But I still felt as if I were coming down with a cold — headache, aches and pains, sore throat, tired. The problem still loomed large in my thoughts.

I almost didn’t go to my Monday evening Sacred Harp singing group, but finally I decided I would go anyway. Sacred Harp singing carries on a long tradition of unaccompanied hymn singing that has been practiced in North America continuously since the 1720s. This is not whitebread church hymn singing, this is full-throated white spiritual singing, maybe not quite the thing you want to sing when you’ve got a bit of a sore throat. But I thought I would go, and leave when I started to feel tired.

You never know who’s going to show up at a Sacred Harp singing. We usually get 15 or so people on Monday evenings, but this week maybe 25 people showed up. A woman with the reputation of being a strong alto singer was visiting from Portland, and all the better regular singers seemed to show up this week. There were only four basses, two of whom were good strong experienced Sacred Harp singers, and two of us who most definitely were not. There I was, sitting on the front bench, where I didn’t belong, sitting there only because there weren’t enough experienced basses; there I was, feeling ill and tired, thinking that I would sing two or three songs and then go home.

That alto from from Portland was a powerful singer, and some of the regular singers were in fine voice, and the emotional temperature of the room kept rising. I got carried along. One of the experienced basses stood up and said he’d like to lead number 236; this is a long complicated anthem composed by William Billings in 1787, with several solos by the bass section; I had never sung it before; yet somehow I managed to sight-read the whole thing and never get lost and only hit one or two wrong notes; not due to any great musical skill on my part, but just getting carried along by the other singers. The emotional temperature kept rising. Someone stood up to lead number 365, a complicated lengthy song dating from 1765, with repeated chords based on open fifths, what rock guitarists call power chords, and with fuguing sections and polyphony, and somehow I managed to keep my place all the way through. I had to keep my place and keep singing; there was no choice not to; I had forgotten about going home early.

The other experienced bass stood up to lead number 163b, a slow, short, simple song. It was simple, but the trebles would hit some high notes in the sixth bar, and then the altos, especially that alto from Portland, would bend some long notes on a little descending run, and those altos would drive the tenors and us basses to blow out some high notes in the tenth and twelth bars — the only thing I can compare it to is when good jazz or blues musicians get going, and the different musicians keep pushing each other to get more intense with every repeating chorus — except this wasn’t jazz, and this wasn’t professional musicians, this was just us sitting around and hitting these emotional climaxes. And there was no one to hear us singing but us, and maybe God if you believe in a God who bothers to listen to us humans singing.

By this time, I was sweating with the effort of singing with such intensity, and my shirt was sticking to the back of the bench. We got done singing number 163b, and the leader paused for a moment in the sudden silence, looking a little stunned. He said quietly, “Wow. Thank you.” I thought maybe his legs were shaking just a little.

That was the high point. The rest was pretty good, too. By the time we got done, I was no longer cranky and upset, and I no longer felt the least bit ill. My problem was still there, it was still serious, but it no longer loomed large. It would be a good idea always to remember that singing, even amateur singing done not for performance but for the sheer joy of it, can heal you.

4 thoughts on “Number 163 at the bottom

  1. VB

    I can’t count the number of times I have dragged myself home from work, completely exhausted, and dreaded a music rehearsal. But I went every time, and I found I had far more energy than I thought at 5:30pm. It works every time!

    I grew up in a shaped-note tradition, and I envy your evening. What a blessing it is to make heartfelt music with others!

  2. Jean

    Horseback riding can be like this too, in a way. I go out to ride, even though I think I’m exhausted and have nothing to give and then, some how, energy comes from the experience of being with the horse, making riding music I suppose.

  3. Rebecca

    Just reading through your back Sacred Harp entries. I love your play by play here. There’s nothing like the way that a powerful sacred harp class can sweep you along and above yourself.

    (By the way, don’t be shy about the front bench! Sure, there’s some responsibility there at a larger singing, but that’s mostly the tenor bench. And at our weekly singings it’s not a big deal and is actually the best place to hear and be guided by strong singers.)

  4. Dan

    Rebecca @ 4 — Glad you enjoyed this!

    As for front bench, I actually like sitting in the back bench better. First, I can sprawl out more (I’m a big guy, believe me, it does make a difference). But also, no matter what group I’ve sung with, I’ve always enjoyed just singing with the other basses — what’s really fun for me is a big singing where I can get lost in that big bass sound. I’ll also admit that I have enough responsibility in my job, I’m glad to abdicate all responsibility in my recreations.

Comments are closed.