Tag Archives: Sacred Harp

Lecture four: Religious humanist communities

Fourth and final lecture for a class on UU humanism

For me, it is a basic axiom that religion is lived out in human communities. In the culture wars of the past half century, our society has somehow gotten the mistaken notion that religion can be boiled down to irrational beliefs; that is to say, religion has become equated with a certain narrow subset of ontotheology. From my point of view, however, religious practice comes first, and the explanations come along later to try to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. Praxis antedates theoria; liturgy and practice trump ontotheology. That being said, I think it is worth examining some religious humanist practices in order to better understand the religious side of humanism.

Let’s start with the stereotype of a religious humanist community. According to the stereotype, religious humanism is a religion of the head, not the heart and body. Therefore, religious humanist communities spend their time in endless debate about intellectual matters. Because intellect is highly valued, and because intellect is somehow equated with the possession of college and graduate degrees, status in this stereotypical community is determined in part by an individual’s level of academic attainment: post-docs rank far higher than bachelor’s degrees, and if you only have a high school diploma you’ll be expected to keep your mouth shut. Furthermore, the sciences outrank the humanities by at least two degrees, so that a bachelor’s degree in science trumps a doctoral degree in English literature. This stereotypical religious humanist community vigorously roots out anything that looks, sounds, or smells like more traditional Western religions, so there are no sermons (though there may be lectures and talks), no candles nor much in the way of visual interest, no hymns or psalms (though songs might be allowed), and no reading from scriptures.

Now obviously I have drawn a caricature of religious humanism here. Continue reading

Road trip: Salem to Portland to Salem

On the drive up to Portland, we listened to the end of the audiobook we had started the day before, A Damsel in Distress by P. G. Wodehouse. We got to the place where I was going to attend a Sacred Harp singing convention, and the book wasn’t quite done yet. We sat there in the car and listened for ten minutes, and the book wasn’t quite done yet. “The final chapter,” said the narrator, and Carol said, “Let’s listen to the last chapter on the drive home.” So we stopped the recording, and I got out to go sing for a few hours.

Carol came to pick me up at three, and we went for a walk with two friends, A— and N—. We took a walk in a park, and A— and I talked about Unitarian Universalism while N— and Carol talked about ecological pollution prevention.

From there, Carol and I drove across the Broadway Bridge and parked near Union Station, a big McKim, Mead, and White building. We walked into the station to use the bathrooms, and it is still quite grand, with big wooden benches (Wikipedia has a nice panoramic photo), and a dozen trains a day passing through or terminating there.

We walked around, and wound up at Powell’s Books. Of course we wound up at Powell’s Books; it’s the kind of place that exerts a gravitational force on people like us. Powell’s exerted a gravitational force on a great many people this evening, and I was almost distracted from the books by the truly excellent people watching. But I exerted self discipline, went and found half a dozen books to buy, and went to have a cup of coffee. The coffee shop in Powell’s was packed, but Carol had saved me a chair. Next to me, a young man studied for the Graduate Record Exams. Across the table, a middle-aged man read some obscure book and barely sipped a cup of coffee. On the other side of Carol, two older men played speed chess.

I half-watched the chess players for a while: White played e4 and bam! hit the button of the clock. Black played e5 and bam! bam! bam! hit the clock three times (he favored the three bam clock gambit). White unwrapped a sandwich as he brought his knight out to f3 and bam! hit the clock. Black immediately played his knight to c6 and bam! bam! bam! White shot his bishop out to b5 and took a bite of sandwich, then remembered that he had to hit the clock and bam! But I don’t play chess any more, and my attention wandered back to the book I was reading.

We walked back to the car, and as soon as we got back on the freeway we played the last chapter of the audiobook. It all ended satisfactorily, as we knew it would, but it was funny enough, and unexpected enough, to keep us listening to the very end.

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 www.fasola.org. 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: http://www.fasola.org/sf/goldengate/

Coincidence? Or conspiracy?

At last night’s Sacred Harp singing, Hal told us that as of February 19, the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) has officially recognized the name “copernicium” for chemical element number 112, an element which was first synthesized in 1996 at the Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany. The song numbered 112 in the 1991 Denson edition of The Scared Harp is a song titled “The Last Words of Copernicus.”

Coincidence, or conspiracy? For those of you who think this is mere coincidence, IUPAC made this new name official on February 19, which was the 537th birthday of Copernicus. Now take 537, divide it by the atomic weight of the synthesized atom of copernicium (Cn-277), and you come up with 1.94. This is extraordinarily close to 1.87, which is the height of Barack Obama in meters. The difference between 1.94 and 1.87 is 0.07, and there is no Sacred Harp song numbered 7! (And the half-life of 277Cn is 0.7 ms!) Clearly, IUPAC is telling us that Barack Obama is not American, but instead is a Polish citizen, like Copernicus! No wonder no one can find Obama’s birth certificate — it was “lost” when the Soviets ruled Poland, because Obama is really a Soviet!

Mere coincidence? Or part of a world-wide conspiracy of scientists and politicians who want to do away with our American Christian democratic lifestyle by cramming global warming and same-sex marriage down our throats? You wimpy liberals probably think this is coincidence, but if this blog disappears in the next few days, you’ll know it’s really a conspiracy!

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.

“Fundamentalists in reverse”

Currently, I’m reading Sacred Song in America by Stephen Marini (Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois, 2003). Marini is a religious historian who is probably best known for his studies of Revolutionary-era religion in North America (Marini has also founded a well-respected group that sings 18th century American choral music and Sacred Harp music, has composed music in the singing school tradition, and has edited a collection of such music).

One of the chapters in Sacred Song in America covers the conservatory tradition of sacred music. Half of this chapter consists of an interview with Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006), long-time music director and composer-in-residence at King’s Chapel, a Unitarian Universalist church in Boston. There are many delightful moments in the interview, inculding Pinkham’s revelation that he was an atheist, and his story about how he got the New England Conservatory to stop having a prayer at commencement, and his comments on the singability of choral music, but I found this exchange particularly delightful:

Stephen Marini: The Unitarian tradition seem especially right for you, given your sense of things, because they are not going to push you on beliefs and doctrines and dogmas.

Daniel Pinkham: But Unitarian churches, they are fundamentalists in reverse!

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.

“On slipp’ry rocks I see them stand…”

Tonight I drove up to Newton to sing with one of the Boston-area shope note singings. In New England shape note singing groups, anyone can call out the number of a hymn and stand up to lead it.

“Number 183,” someone called out, adding: “This one is dedicated to all the Wall Street investment bankers.”

People started chuckling as they turned to number 183 and saw the words which had been written by Isaac Watts back in 1719:

“Lord, what a thoughtless wretch was I,
To mourn, and murmur and repine,
To see the wicked placed on high,
In pride and robes of honor shine.

“But oh, their end, their dreadful end,
Thy sanctuary taught me so,
On slipp’ry rocks I see them stand,
And fiery billows roll below.”

Universalist though I am, I chuckled too. For a moment. Until I realized that those Wall Street investment bankers have placed us all on slipp’ry rocks, financially speaking….

Be that as it may, we all sang the song with great gusto.