Tag Archives: NEFFA

Ideas from a folk festival

Ted and I spent twelve hours at the New England Folk Festival today. Ted has been running our church’s children’s choir, and I’ve been running our church’s folk choir, and we were both looking for new music (or maybe new approaches to old music) that we could introduce to our church.

Here are five things I brought home from the festival:

(1) You can sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as a round, and it sounds pretty good (see below for details).

(2) Several performers yesterday sang Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More,” obviously in response to the current economic downturn. Our folk choir might be swayed by the Zeitgeist, and add “Hard Times” to our repertoire. (“Hard Times” sheet music here.)

(3,4) I heard two songs that have some potential for liberal religious worship services: “Take My Hand” by Ben Tousley, and “Gentle Hands” by Ellen Schmidt. Both songs might need a verse dropped or other minor tweaking, but both songs would fit in with many Unitarian Universalist worship services.

(5) The best one-liner came from Ken Mattson, whom I know from Unitarian Universalist conferences (as well as shape note singing and dulcimer festivals). During a singing workshop that he was co-leading, someone in the audience went on a little too long with an obscure question about Stan Rogers. After about three minutes of this, Ken gave a big smile, and said, “We’re losing valuable singing time here.” What a great line for getting a workshop — or a rehearsal — back on track.

To sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as a round… Continue reading


On Sunday afternoon at the New England Folk Festival, I went to hear a small choral group perform. I had been looking forward to hearing them; but I had to leave after one song. They sang into microphones, even though the room was fairly small and reasonably resonant. I couldn’t pick out which person was singing which line of the music, since the sound of actual voices was completely swallowed up in the sound from the loudspeakers, and I found this disconcerting.

Worse, microphones and loudspeakers remove something from the sound of singing. The previous day, I had been in the same room to hear a six-voice a capella men’s group sing folk songs and sacred music from the Republic of Georgia. They did not use microphones. As a result, when they hit certain chords, you could hear the high overtones ringing in the room. These sounds had a physical effect on my body — you can feel such harmony in your body. Amplifiers and loudspeakers strip away most of the overtones, thus making listening to singing a more passive experience.

(All this might help explain why I dislike amplified church choirs.)

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….

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.