A little-known song for Christmas by Henry Lawes. This song, published in 1669, is a Christmas party song, with absolutely no religious content except the word “Christmas.”
’Tis Christmas now, ’tis Christmas now, When Cato’s self would laugh, And smoothing forth his wrinkled brow, Gives liberty to Quaff, To Dance, to Sing, to Sport and Play, For ev’ry hour’s a holiday.
And for the Twelve days, let them pass In mirth and jollity: The Time doth call each Lad and Lass That will be blithe and merry Then Dance, and Sing, and Sport, and Play, For ev’ry hour’s a holiday.
And from the Rising of the Sun To th’Setting, cast off Cares; ’Tis time enough when Twelve is done To think of our Affairs. Then Dance, and Sing, and Sport, and Play, For ev’ry hour’s a holiday.
Click on the image below for a PDF of sheet music for this song. The melody in the sheet music is Lawes’ melody; Lawes outlined a bass line to be played on theorbo or bass-viol, and I changed the rhythms of this slightly to fit the lyrics so bass voices could sing this part.
The Daffodil Project aims to “champion gender equality in classical music.” In a blog post, Elizabeth de Brito writes:
“Mozart and Beethoven together make up just over one third of all classical performances…. Add the next 4 most played composers — Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky — and they make up 78% of classical performances. Over 400 years and hundreds of amazing composers, but nearly 80% of all performances are of just 6 white male composers that all died over a century ago?!”
De Brito produces an online gender-balanced classical music program which in its first year had “409 composers including 204 female composers, 155 living composers, and 40 BAME composers/composers of colour.” The most played composer? — Florence Price.
And De Brito has hit on one of the main reasons why I don’t bother going to hear classical music concerts much any more — I’m so bored by hearing the same composers over and over again. I like “classical” music just fine, but I don’t want to hear Beethoven and Mozart again and again, I want to hear living composers, women composers, non-white composers….
Steve lent me his washtub bass, so I could take it home and try to learn to play it.
Steve’s washtub bass is simplicity itself: a 15 gallon galvanized washtub with a hole drilled in the center of the bottom; a length of 3/16 inch braided polypropylene rope, and a broom handle with an eyebolt screwed in one end and a slot cut in the other end. Tie a stopper knot in one end of the rope, thread it up through the hole, and tie it to the eyebolt. Place the slot of the broom handle on the rim up the upturned washtub, pull the string taut, and there you are.
Playing the washtub bass is not so simple. You have to put one foot on the rim of the washtub to keep it on the ground. You adjust the pitch by changing the tension of the rope by tilting the broom handle back and forth. The range is pretty limited — I got less than an octave — and it’s a challenge to get exactly the pitch you want. The biggest disadvantage, though, is that playing it took a lot out of me: it’s a real workout to move that broom handle back and forth, and twanging the braided rope is hard on your hands. After half an hour, it became clear that it was going to take more time than I was willing to devote to building up strength and building up callouses.
There had to be a better way. I began researching other ways of building and playing the washtub bass.
Eddie Holland of Possum Trot, Kentucky, built himself a two-string washtub bass with a fixed neck that you play by fretting, not by moving the neck. He’s a heck of a player, and his bass sounds great, but by the time you buy the hardware, the tuning machines, and a couple of strings for an upright bass, his bass probably cost a couple hundred dollars.
Shelley Rickey has a washtub bass made out of a big plastic tub with an arm bolted on the side; the string is fretted by means of a short length of PVC pipe that you slide up and down. She has a video where she plays cigar-box uke and her partner plays the bass, and the bass sounds good. But it still takes a lot of muscle: “I’ve been playing it now for five years,” Shelley writes, “and have developed the arms of a lumberjack.”
I found different playing styles, too. “Washtub Jerry” stands with both feet on the rim of the washtub; this brings the neck of the bass closer to his body, which might give him better control. I also found a photo of Amy Sutton holding down the rim of the washtub with a bare foot, which seems like it would be painful.
There are also more complicated designs for washtub basses where you don’t tilt the neck to play. Michael Bishop made a hardwood frame with a five-gallon bucket as the resonator, and a fixed neck and tuneable string. Marc Bristol, writing in Mother Earth News, September/October, 1980, issue, describes an elaborate upright bass made using a washtub as the resonator. I found a photo online of bass made on a similar plan, except the oblong washtub supports a wood sound board.
I guess if you really want an upright bass and you can’t afford a wood one, you could make one of these. But these really aren’t washtub basses; these are upright basses made in folk instrument style. The upright bass is an instrument in the violin family from Europe, but the washtub bass has roots in another continent. According to “Afro-American One-Stringed Instruments, an article by David Evans in Western Folklore (vol. 29, no. 4 [Oct., 1970], pp. 229-245), the washtub bass comes from Africa:
“Two kinds of one-stringed instruments are known to Negroes in America today. One is the familiar one-stringed bass, sometimes called a ‘washtub bass’ or ‘gutbucket’ from the materials of its construction…. Its origin in the African ‘earth bow’ has been pointed out and generally accepted. This African instrument is made by digging a hole in the ground and covering it with a membrane of bark or hide, which is pegged down at the edges. From the membrane a string is led to a nearby sapling or stick placed in the ground. The string is then plucked, the covered hole serving as a resonator. In America an inverted washtub is simply substituted for the membrane and the hole.”
(The other one-stringed instrument is a “jitterbug,” which is a single string played in bottleneck guitar style; the jitterbug derives ultimately from the mouthbow).
What I was looking for was a version of the washtub bass that didn’t require me to develop the arms of a lumberjack, yet retained the flexibility and character of the American version of the African earth bow. And what I found was the simple yet elegant washtub bass built and played by Jim Bunch. He describes his instrument as follows:
“I have built a cross brace for the pole using a board the width of the tub supported by two small blocks that fit on the rim. This allows you to support the pole closer to the center of the tub and get good notes without putting as much tension on the string and your fingers. [Moving the pole changes the string tension and the pitch, but] you can also move up and down the pole to change notes. I tend to both adjust the tension and finger 5ths when I play. I screwed a rubber table leg cover to the middle of the cross brace that the pole fits in. This allows the pole and brace to be disassembled for the trunk of the car.” (from the Tub-o-Tonia Web site, c. 2005?)
This keeps the simplicity of the instrument; all you’re adding is a cross brace. You can still change pitch by changing the tension of the string, but it requires a lot less arm strength. And you can fret the string up and down the neck (without having to slide a PVC pipe). Using some scrap wood I had lying around, I made my own version of this, and it’s really a joy to play.
Since Jim Bunch first described his instrument on the Tub-o-tonia Web site, he has made a few modifications (see this discussion for some details). He replaced the metal bottom of the tub with 1/4 inch thick Lauan plywood; for strings, he upgraded from a 3 dollar bike derailleur cable to an upright bass woven-core G string (perhaps 50 dollars). Photos of his instrument reveal that he’s added a headstock with a nut to hold the string a bit off the finger board, as well as a tuning machine. These somewhat elaborate modifications make sense for him because he plays a lot, and he plays at a pretty high level, as you can see from his Youtube videos.
I’m not trying to perform at Jim Bunch’s level, but I feel his type of washtub bass — with the neck supported on a cross brace — is the best bet for an occasional player like me. After a couple of hours of practice, I’ve gotten good enough that I’ll be able to play in tune on simple songs at a low-key folk music jam session. And that’s all I want.
Update (Aug. 9): I’m adding sketches of Fritz Richmond’s washtub bass. Richmond played washtub bass in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and played washtub bass with popular musicians from Maria Muldaur to Loudon Wainwright to the Grateful Dead. One of his washtub basses is reportedly in the Smithsonian. In short, Richmond is probably the most famous of all washtub bass players, so his bass and his style of playing are worth looking at. A few things I noticed: First, the neck of his bass has a metal lower part and wooden upper part; it looks like it can be broken down for easier transport. Second, videos of Richmond’s playing style show that he both moved the angle of the neck and fretted up and down the neck. Third, he uses a metal nut, which in photos looks like it’s a section of a metal guitar slide. It’s also worth noting that Richmond used a special leather-and-steel glove for fretting, and a large pick for strumming.
Addendum (July 12): details of my additions to Steve’s washtub bass: I took his washtub, replaced the line (it was rough and worn and hard on my fingers), and added a neck with a Jim Bunch style cross brace. I made the neck out of scrap wood (including a discarded floral tripod that I found in the cemetery’s trash). The string is a new piece of 3/16 inch braided polypropylene rope, which I’ve tuned roughly to D, a good tuning for many simple folk melodies. The string is tied off with figure-eight knots (a stopper knot that’s relatively easy to adjust for tuning). And Steve’s original mop handle and string are untouched, so I can return his instrument to him just the way he gave it to me. The photo below gives an idea of the most important dimension for the Jim Bunch style washtub bass — the distance between the neck and where the string is attached to the washtub.
Yesterday would have been Pete Seeger’s one hundredth birthday, had he not died in 2014. In preparation for a Pete Seeger sing-along at church tomorrow, I’ve been reading through the songs in his books “The Bells of Rhymney” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone, listening to some of his recordings, and reflecting on his legacy.
He is often remembered as a songwriter, but as a song writer he was at his best when he collaborated with others. “The Hammer Song,” one of his most notable songs, was co-written with Lee Hays, who recalled that the song was written “in the course of a long executive committee meeting of People’s Songs” during which “Pete and I passed manuscript notes back and forth until I finally nodded at him and agreed that we had the thing down” (quoted in Doris Willens, Lonesome Traveler: The Life of Lee Hays [New York: W. W. Norton, 1988], p. 88) — then several years later, the melody of “The Hammer Song” was modified to its most recognizable version when it was recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” while it was written solely by Seeger, has lyrics which are derived from a Cossack folk song. “The Bells of Rhymney” gets lyrics from a poem by Idris Davies. “Turn, Turn, Turn” takes its lyrics from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes.
Of the songs which Seeger wrote entirely by himself, both words and music, the best is “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”; though written about the Vietnam War, the song holds up today (especially if you leave out the sixth verse in which Seeger claims he’s “not going to point any moral,” then does so with a heavy hand). Most of the rest of Seeger’s songs are either forgettable, like “Maple Syrup Time,” a folk music pastorale with sentiments as sickly sweet as the title suggests — or hard to sing, like “Precious Friend” with its awkward rhythm and high notes reachable only by tenors and sopranos.
Seeger was better as an interpreter and transmitter of traditional songs, as well as songs written in a folk style. He was not impressed by the tradition of Western classical music, and instead dedicated himself to the folk tradition, the tradition of “people’s songs.” As he recalled in his memoir Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singalong Memoir:
“My violinist mother once said, ‘The three Bs are Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.’ I retorted, ‘For me, they are ballads, blues, and breakdowns.'” (p. 205)
He loved the folk tradition, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional and traditional-sounding songs — mostly from the Anglo-American and African-American folk song traditions, but he also knew a lot of songs from other traditions. There are many instances where he helped transmit an obscure song into wide popularity. “Wimoweh” is a perfect example of this. In 1948, Alan Lomax gave Seeger a hit record from South Africa titled “Mbube,” written by a Zulu sheepherder named Solomon Linda. Seeger transcribed the music from the recording, misunderstanding the Zulu word “mbube” as “Hey yup boy,” taught it to a newly-formed quartet called The Weavers, and their recording of it hit no 6 on the Hit Parade. Then in 1958, another group, The Tokens, adapted the song further, calling it “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
Seeger particularly liked folk songs, or folk-like songs, with a political message. The one solo recording of his that made it onto the charts was his version of his friend Malvina Reynolds’ song “Little Boxes,” a song that protested the conformity of suburbia. Reynolds included the song in her collection of children’s songs, and for me “Little Boxes” is at its best as a silly sing-along kids’ song. Seeger’s interpretation of the song has a harsher bite to it. I suspect Tom Lehrer had Seeger’s interpretation of the song in mind when Lehrer called “Little Boxes” “the most sanctimonious song ever written” (quoted in Christopher Hitchens, “Suburbs of Our Discontent,” The Atlantic, December, 2008). Seeger was an angry man: angry as the way the Hudson River had been polluted and exploited, angry at the way workers and union members were exploited, angry at the way Congressman Joe McCarthy used red-baiting to silence leftists, angry at the maltreatment of African Americans, angry at all kinds of injustice. He sang songs that helped channel his anger into changing the world for the better. Seeger identified with the poor and down-trodden; yet at the same time he never managed to lose his upper-class accent, though he tried to obscure it by pronouncing “-ing” as “-in,” and frequently dropping the first-person singular pronoun.
That combination of affected upper-class accent and an identification with the working class still grates on me, and sometimes makes me want to call Seeger sanctimonious. He was a little too sure of his ethical stands, and a little too quick to condemn others. A perfect example of this is when he quit the Weavers. Lee Hays recalled:
“It came out in the guise of going ahead to do something pure and noble, which had the effect of making the rest of us feel guilty as hell for going on, as if we were doing something wrong…. He just walked out on us, and it was a terrible blow.” (quoted in Doris Willens, Lonesome Traveler: The Life of Lee Hays [New York: W. W. Norton, 1988], p. 182)
Hays went on to acknowledge Seeger’s “fantastic accumulation of songs”; when Hays first met him, Seeger knew more than 300 songs, ready to sing and play. Seeger’s political activism, coupled with his extremely high moral standards, are an important part of his legacy, but his true genius lies in his passion for song.
And crucial to Seeger’s genius was his dedication to getting groups of people to sing. Seeger was moderately good performer (though he abused his voice and don’t imitate his vocal style unless you want to ruin your voice), but his talent was small compared to someone like Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie — but he was a genius as a songleader. Seeger didn’t just sing his songs and get off stage; he wanted you to sing along with him, so the song became a part of you. Listen to his concert recordings, and you will hear how he got people to sing freely and unselfconcisously. I heard him sing at several political rallies and demonstrations during the 1980s, and he was brilliant at energizing the crowd by getting us singing; this was a distinct contrast with other singers who treated those political rallies as performances.
But Seeger’s dedication to getting people to sing for themselves is best exemplified, not in his live performances — which were performances after all — but in his tireless dedication to giving people the tools to sing and play for themselves. His modest 1948 booklet “How To Play the Five-String Banjo” popularized that instrument to an entire generation. He was the guiding genius behind “Sing Out” magazine, a magazine which each month contained a few songs that you could learn to sing and play yourself. And it was his encouragement that got the popular sing-along songbook Rise Up Singing published and popularized.
So I remember Pete Seeger, not as a songwriter or performer, but as someone who urged us all to sing. For that gift, I can forgive him his sanctimoniousness, and I can forgive him all the sublimo-slipshod songs he wrote. He was a genius at getting us to sing. And singing, for Seeger, was a way for us to make the world a better place; to energize us so we could do the work that needs to be done; to nurture and grow a community founded on harmony and love.
Veronika sent a photo of hymn number 736 in Anglican Hymns Old and New, Revised and Enlarged (Great Britain: Kevin Mayhew, 2008). The hymn is titled “The Wolrd Is Full of Smelly Feet.” Of course I thought it was a faked photo, but a little bit of Web searching reveals that it is, in fact, a real hymn with text by by Michael Forster, and music by Christopher Tambling.
I suppose if one is in a Christian church with a liturgical heritage, and one is looking for a contemporary praise-song-type hymn to sing during footwashing, one might consider having the congregation sing this; although it’s hard to imagine.
But then my Web searching revealed that this hymn is included in a collection for junior choirs, and that boggled my mind. If the junior choir I was in sang this song — which we wouldn’t have, since it was a Unitarian Universalist church — but if we had been told to sing that song, my buddy Barry and I would have been laughing so hard we probably would have been unable to sing. Maybe some of the serious older girls would have sung it, but I can’t even imagine them getting through the lyrics with a straight face.
I am sometimes annoyed by some of the hymns in the Unitarian Universalist hymnals. It is good to know that we, at least, do no have a hymn to smelly feet.
For educational purposes, and in the spirit of Maundy Thursday, I’ll include the chorus and two of the verses here. I think you’ll especially enjoy the unexpected rhyme between “toes” and “nose.”
Chorus: The world is full of smelly feet, Weary from the dusty street. The world is full of smelly feet, We’ll wash them for each other.
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Wash those weary toes! ‘Do it in a cheerful fashion, ‘Never hold your nose!
We’re his [Jesus’] friends, we recognise him In the folk we meet; Smart or scruffy, we’ll still love him, Wash his smelly feet!
Thomas Commuck (1805-1855) is probably the first Native American composer whose compositions were published. Commuck was a Narragansett Indian who became part of Brothertown Indian Nation — an alliance of Christian Native Americans from different “parent tribes” in southern New England (according to the Brothertown Indian Nation Web site).
Though he was born in Rhode Island in 1805, during the 1820s Commuck joined the exodus of New England Christian Indians to upstate New York, joining the Brothertown Indians near Deansboro, N.Y. Then in 1831, he joined the Brothertown Indians once more in leaving New York to settle in Wisconsin.
Commuck published his Indian Melodies, a hymn and tune book, in 1845. In the Preface, Commuck writes that in 1836 he began “trying to learn, scientifically, the art of singing” through self-study. For hymn texts, he mostly drew on a hymnbook of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the majority of the texts he set to music are by Charles Wesley. The book was published in New York under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The tunes, according to the Preface, are named with “the names of noted Indian chiefs, Indian females, Indian names of place, etc.” The tunebook was published in two edition: one with “patent notes,” what we now call shape notes; and the other with conventional round note heads. As was the custom in much of early nineteenth century American hymn tunes, the melody is in the tenor line.
Commuck had his tunes harmonized by Thomas Hastings. Hastings’ work was completed in less than a month: “For much of the rest of the month of April, Hastings’ attention was focused on readying for publication a collection of original hymn tunes by the Narragansett Indian, Thomas Commuck (1805-1855), for which he had been asked to supply the harmonizations. …an entry in Hastings’ diary on 24 April 1845 indicates that he finished his part of the editing process on that date” (Hermine Weigel Williams, Thomas Hastings: An introduction to His Life and Music [Lincoln, Neb.: iUniverse, 2005].p. 109-110). Why was Hastings chosen to do the harmonizations? No doubt in large part due to his reputation as a composer and musical reformer, who had by then published a number of well-known collections of sacred music. In addition, however, “Hastings had long had a fascination with music that was indigenous to the Americas, as evidenced by the fact that he was among the first in America to publish a few examples of ‘Indian airs'” (Williams, p. 110 n. 24).
Today, Hastings has a poor reputation as a composer who was a mere imitator of European musicians, while some of the earlier (white) American composers whom he had rejected are now considered favorably; William Billings, for example, is now considered the first serious American composer while Hastings is all but forgotten. Yet while some of Hastings’ arrangements of Commuck’s melodies are entirely forgettable, others come across as sensitive and non-intrusive arrangements. One example is Wabash, on page 27; Hastings’ harmonization supports but neither overwhelms nor distorts Commuck’s minor-key setting of the Isaac Watts paraphrase of Ps. 117 (I have digitally edited the version below to correct a typographical error):
Commuck’s tunes tend to be sunny and uplifting; even though the melody of Wabash is in G minor, the B section begins with a shift to the relative major, and the use of the raised seventh in the A section provides a lighter mood than strict Aeolian mode. Overall, the melody comes across as communicating the awe and power of the God of the Psalms, without an overwhelming sense of fear.
A group of scholars and students at Yale became interested in Commuck’s book, and reached out the the Brothertown Indians. With help from (mostly white) shape note singers and the Yale scholars, the Brothertown Indian Nation has been reviving the use of Indian Melodies. Calumet and Cross, an organization of Brothertown Indians, has published about half the tunes from Indian Melodies in an attractive spiral-bound edition, accompanied by essays about Commuck and the Brothertown Indians; this edition is available for sale via eBay. My one reservation about this book is that a couple of the tunes have been reharmonized to conform with current-day shape note musical tastes — I don’t see what is gained by having Commuck’s tunes reharmonized to conform with an overwhelmingly white musical subculture — but you don’t have to sing those two re-harmonizations.
I would like to see an edition that includes all of Commuck’s tunes. I’m working on creating a provisional version of such an edition, beginning with a digitally enhanced version of the scanned book, and adding additional underlaid verses for most of the tunes to facilitate easy singing. When I’ve done all I’m willing to do, I’ll release my cleaned-up up edition under a Creative Commons Share-Alike license so that other can improve on it further — watch this blog for more information. (Though it might be a bit of a wait: on average it takes me 15 -30 minutes per page to clean up scanning problems and then underlay text, even with my low standards.)
Update, March 14: I’m appending a PDF with two historical sketches, both written by Commuck, which give the early history of the Brothertown Indian Nation; some of Commuck’s own life story can be gotten from these sketches.
After reading a biography of Buffy Saint-Marie, I got curious about one of the instruments she played: a mouthbow. After listening to listening to several Youtube clips of mouthbows, I decided to make my own. I went out and found a fairly straight twig about as thick as my little finger; and took the bark off and shaved the butt end down with pocketknife and block plane so it would bend evenly across its length. I used a 010 loop-end steel banjo string I happened to have, attached the loop end to a copper tack in one end of the stick, and tied the straight end of the string through a 1/64″ hole I drilled in the other end of the stick. It looks like this:
When you play the mouthbow, the fundamental note of the string sounds as a drone throughout, while changing the mouth cavity brings out overtones to produce the melody — that combination of melody and drone sounds to me a little like a mountain dulcimer. While I make no claims to mouthbow virtuosity, here’s an audio recording of the instrument I made today:
Since your mouth cavity acts as the resonator, you can hear the mouthbow louder yourself than anyone around you can hear it. So I’m thinking this might be a good instrument to make with children: fairly easy to make, fun to play, quiet enough that it won’t drive everyone else crazy. However, if I do make it with kids, I won’t use a steel string: it’s too easy to hurt yourself if a steel string breaks; and something like nylon monofilament or linen thread would make for a quieter instrument.
Mouthbows were used by Indigenous peoples in North America, including California Indians: “Southern Yokuts men sometimes played the musical bow after settling themselves in bed; the Chukchansi in mourning the dead. These may be but two expreissions of one employment. Modern forms of the instrument have a peg key for adjusting the tension…. In old days a true shooting bow, or a separate instrument made on the model of a bow, was used. Mawu or mawuwi, was its name. One end was held in the mouth, while the lone string was tapped, not plucked, with the nail of the index finger; the melody, audible to himself only, was produced by changes in the size of the resonance chamber formed by the player’s oral cavity.” Alfred Kroeber, Handbook of the Indians of California, p. 542. Elsewhere, Kroeber says, “The musical bow is a device definitely reported from the Maidu and Yokuts, but probably shared by these groups with a number of others…. [It] was tapped or plucked….” p. 419. Kroeber also reports the musical bow being used by the Pomo and other tribes.
Buffy Sainte-Marie is probably the best-known contemporary player of the mouthbow, mostly because she played mouthbow on several television shows, including “To Tell the Truth,” “Sesame Street,” and the folk-music showcase “Rainbow Quest.” Sainte-Marie makes her own mouthbows; while they may look primitive at first glance, they are tuneable, and she writes: “I like to tune my bow precisely and work with other instruments, so I favor a geared peg, like the Grover peg in the picture.” Sainte-Marie’s blog post on making and playing mouthbows is excellent. Here’s Sainte-Marie playing the instrument on Sesame Street:
Notice that she holds the mouthbow at the end farthest from her mouth; that way, she can control the tension of the string, and thus adjust the pitch as she’s playing. By contrast, traditional Appalachian mouthbow player Carlox Stutsberry does not flex the tension of the bow to alter the tone:
Both Stutsberry and Sainte-Marie pluck the mouthbow with a pick; however, the mouthbow can also be tapped (like the strings of a hammered dulcimer), or bowed. South African jazz musician Pops Mohamed plays mouthbow using a bow:
If you search Youtube for “mouth bow,” you can find quite a few modern practitioners of the instrument. But only a few of them are worth listening to, including Pops Mohamed, Carlox Stutsberry, and Buffy Sainte-Marie; clicking on the photos above will take you to videos by those three.
In high school, I became enamored of broadcast radio. Since I grew up near Boston, along Route 128 — then a high-tech corridor not unlike Silicon Valley — some high-tech company donated a ten watt broadcast station to my public high school. I got my third class radiotelephone license with broadcast endorsement, and became a once-a-week DJ. We lived four miles from the transmitter, and on a good day my parents could sometimes listen to me broadcasting. I don’t remember what music I played on the air, but during my teen years I listened to everything from Renaissance motets to Top 40 rock.
During the 1980-81 academic year, I took a year off from college and went to work in a lumberyard, my first full-time job. There were a few of us who were under 25, and we all listened to WBCN, the freeform rock music station in Boston. Rich, who worked in paint, tried to time his morning coffee break so he could listen to Mattress Mishegas, the strange call-in quiz show kind of thing run by DJ Charles Laquidara, and if he was working up in the paint stockroom, where no one could hear him, he’d listen to ‘BCN. I worked out in the yard so I didn’t get to listen to the radio much. But I heard Laquidara promoting the big protest at Seabrook nuclear power plant over Memorial Day weekend in 1981, and my old youth group buddy John and I drove up and camped out in the woods next to the power plant and watched people we knew committing civil disobedience. Laquidara made no bones about his liberal-left politics.
That was radio at its best: not just playing new music from well-known bands, not just giving airplay to unknown local bands, but connecting listeners with what was going on. And at WBCN, Laquidara and his listeners all talked with Boston accents. You knew you were listening to people like you, people who lived near you; it was local. After the corporatization of broadcast radio in the mid-1990s, radio became less and less local: you could hear Howard Stern anywhere in the country.
The Web does most of what broadcast radio used to do, and does it better. If I want to get involved in social action, I check the Web. I love exploring new music on online sources, and broadcast radio would never have played lotsof themusicI nowlisten to online. And there were lots of things that sucked about broadcast radio: stupid commercials, songs that you hated that got played over and over, lots of boring moments. (Although increasingly Youtube.com is overrun with stupid commercials and bad music and too many boring videos.)
I’m not feeling nostalgic about broadcast radio. But what strikes me is the way I think differently now. Broadcast radio was a communal experience; most of the people I knew my age listened to WBCN, we all knew about the local bands they played. The Web is a fragmented, even tribal experience; you can become part of a small tribal music community.
You are unlikely to see people looking like this when they sing hymns at a Unitarian Universalist church:
I took this photo at today’s Sacred Harp singing in Davis, California. Everybody, even the people who are new to this kind of singing, are in full voice, not holding back, letting the song carry them away even if they disagree with the lyrics.
Unitarian Universalists, by contrast, tend to be of three types: Trained Singers, Overly-polite Singers, and Timid Singers. Many of the Trained Signers will be in the choir, and the rest of the congregation defers to them because they have at least some training. The Overly-polite Singers are the inheritors of Lowell Mason’s Better Music Movement, which swept both Unitarians and Universalists in the mid-nineteenth century: this movement expunged American composers and singing styles and replaced them European composers and bel canto singing. The Timid Singers, usually the majority of people at any given Unitarian Unviersalist worship service, having been cowed by the Trained Singers and the Overly-polite Singers, assume they can’t sing.
Sacred Harp singers don’t fit into any of these categories. Sacred Harp singing is an American tradition (there are both black and white versions, but they’re closely related) that does not sound like bel canto singing. Sacred Harp singers may get carried away with the music. Sacred Harp singers know that they should sing as well as they can for every song, even if they don’t like it, so that everyone else sings along on their favorites. Sacred Harp singing is a distinctly egalitarian tradition that says everyone can sing. And Sacred Harp singers let themselves be carried away with the music, as in the photo above.
(There might also be a fourth type of singer in some Unitarian Universalist congregations: the Popular-music Singer. These are the folks who sing along to various types of popular music. They may not read music, but once they hear a song they can generally sing it. They tend to be more egalitarian than the other three types of singer, and they tend to be more passionate singers. However, they are generally outnumbered by the Better Music Movement Singers.)
I wish more Unitarian Universalist congregations sang as if they were being carried away with the music. I wish we were less polite singers. But I suspect that music feels a little too uncontrolled, too irrational: we want to keep it carefully under control.
Below are some videos of faith communities that let their singing get ecstatic. Probably the majority of Unitarian Universalists will find these recordings unpleasant, and disturbingly passionate. Besides, we don’t want to look funny while we sing. That’s who we are; we don’t want to sing like our lives depended on it.
(Just to be clear, on some songs we sing like we mean it out in my own congregation in Palo Alto; we may not have quite the urgency of Sacred Harp singers in full cry, but we’re not too bad!)
Some Stanford University undergraduates made a brief documentary on the Bay Area Sacred Harp singing community. The students were in an ethnomusicology class, and their goal was to document a local musical community. Given their time constraints, I think they give a pretty good sense of how music and community are woven together in Sacred Harp.
Notes: No one is identified in the video, but this is who you’ll hear from, in order of appearance: Pat Coghlan, Gridley, Calif.; Lena Strayhorn, San Francisco; Jeannette Ralston, Half Moon Bay; Terry Moore, Palo Alto. (Jeannette is the senior singer who was interviewed; she has been singing Sacred Harp in the Bay Area since the 1970s.) The local singings shown are Berkeley (in the church with pews); Palo Alto (in the children’s art room); and San Francisco (in the living room). You’ll hear the Palo Alto singers on Nehemiah Shumway’s Ballstown (begins 0:05; cont. 0:27 and William Billings’s Easter Anthem (begins 1:58).