The Bay Area Sacred Harp (BASH) singing community has been using Jamulus to sing together online, in four part harmony, in real time. The big problem with trying to sing online together is that the Internet has built-in “latency,” or lag time. Jamulus is free open source software that minimizes latency to allow people to make music together in real time.
Last night, we had eight singers logged in to our Jamulus server, including two singers from Southern California. And it finally felt like we’re getting the hang of how to do this.
We started experimenting with Jamulus back in June, and since mid-August we’ve been singing twice a month, so this is our seventh regular meeting. Singing online requires several adjustments on the part of singers. First you have to get used to the Jamulus platform, including watching your volume level, adjusting the volume levels of other singers, etc.
Beyond the technical learning curve, there’s also a musical learning curve. You have to get used to the fact that you have no visual cues, so instead of watching someone beating time you have to maintain a very sure sense of the tempo. You also have to get used to the fact that there’s more lag time than when singing in person; in person, you can rely on another singer by listening to them and following a split second behind, but singing online has just enough lag time that you have to be exactly on the beat (or even the tiniest bit ahead). In short, you have to be very confident of your part.
No, it’s not as good as singing in person. But because of the pandemic, singing in person simply isn’t possible. This is the best alternative; and really, given how good it feels to be able to sing with others, it’s a pretty good alternative.
I’ll continue after the jump with more technical details.
This second video in the two part series explores Christian diversity in the U.S. through Christian music, touching on everything from Christian K-pop to Primitive Baptist hymns to Mainline Protestant choral music to an AME Zion hymn choir — and more. The people who write, perform, and listen to this Christian music come from widely divergent religious perspectives, and very different cultures and ethnicities, and the musical diversity covered in this video should challenge anyone who thinks Christianity is a monolith.
(A disclaimer that will be obvious to my Unitarian Universalist readers: I’m looking at Christianity from the outside; Unitarian Universalism can no longer be considered a Christian religion, it is now quite firmly post-Christian — and whatever that means, it definitely isn’t Christian, though it is related historically.)
Below is the text I was looking at while making the video (but I deviated from the script more than once). The videos from the associated Youtube playlist are embedded below.
Questions that are implicit in the video: How do you define the boundaries of a religious tradition? What makes a piece of music Christian — Christian text, Christian performers, Christian context, Christian intent behind the music, Christian musical genre, or more than one of the above, or all of the above? What are the boundaries between culture and religion? — or are culture and religion somehow intertwined? How can we listen across religious and cultural boundaries? — what do we have in common, and how do we get past what we don’t have in common?
A short (5 min.) talk for an adult class in which I talk about some stereotypes of Christians, and then suggest listening to the wild diversity of Christian music as a way to get past the stereotypes to begin to understand something of the wild diversity of the Christian religion….
Below is the uncorrected text that I was reading from (I diverged from the text a bit, but this is most of it):
Just in time for Independence Day, here’s a song about how nobody tells me what to do:
1. I went out to buy some food, They wouldn’t let me in the store, Said I had to wear a mask, I shook my fist, I cursed and swore: I don’t want to wear a mask, I don’t want to look a fool, Makes me feel uncomfortable, No one tells me what to do.
2. I went to the park today And started hanging out with friends, They all stayed six feet away, I said our friendship’s at an end: Don’t you social distance me, COVID’s no worse than the flu, Six feet is too far away, No one tells me what to do.
3. I’m a free American, Don’t trample on my civil rights, If you make me wear a mask, I’ll get a gun, I’ll start a fight: Masks are unamerican, They are not red, white, and blue, I am like my President, No one tells me what to do.
4. I began to cough a bit, My temperature hit 102, Had a tracheotomy, And now I’m in the I. C. U.: Now I never wear a mask, I don’t have to look a fool, They say I may not make it, but No one tells me what to do.
Years are coming — speed them onward! When the sword shall gather rust, And the helmet, lance, and falchion, Sleep at last in silent dust!
This hymn has mostly been reprinted in Universalist and Unitarian Universalist hymnals, and it is usually attributed to the Universalist minister Adin Ballou, who founded the utopian Hopedale community in Milford, Massachusetts, in 1842. Ballou and the members of the Hopedale community were believers in women’s rights and abolition and temperance and education and pacifism. Recently, while I was researching family history, I discovered that my mother’s great-grandparents Nathan Chapman and Hepzibah Whipple left the utopian Rogerenes of Ledyard, Conn., to join the nearby utopian Hopedale community in Massachusetts; and their daughter Jeannette was married in Hopedale to her husband Richard Congdon by none other than Rev. Adin Ballou; and though by the time of this marriage the Hopedale community had gone bankrupt, the spirit of the community lived on in the Hopedale Unitarian church of which Ballou was the minister.
Not only did this family history help explain why I’m a feminist, pacifist, educator, and utopian dreamer, but I decided it must explain why I like this hymn so much.
For me, the biggest stumbling block for livestreaming worship services has always been copyright issues.
Especially troublesome are hymns.
Many of the most popular hymn tunes are protected by copyright. Even if a tune is in the public domain, the arrangement may be copyrighted (and it can be difficult to find out if the arrangement is, in fact, copyrighted). Even if the arrangement is copyrighted, some people will claim copyright for their typesetting of the hymn. If a hymn is protected in any way under copyright, you’re not supposed to photocopy or project or electronically disseminate the printed version of the hymn; if any part of the music is protected under copyright, you’re not supposed to broadcast audio of it. No, not even if you own hymnals with the hymn: owning a hymnal just allows you to use the hymn in an in-person event such as an in-person worship service.
The solution to this problem: copyright free hymns.
For the past few years, I’ve been collecting copyright free hymns and spiritual songs. I have huge disorganized files (both electronic and hard copy) of public domain tunes and texts and arrangements. I’ve pulled many songs from the great early African American collections, including Slave Songs of the U.S. (1868), the Fisk Jubilee Singers songbook (1873), and Cabin and Plantation Songs, assembled by the Hampton Institute (1901). Although most of the hymns I’ve found are Christian, I’ve also found some good hymns and songs with Buddhist, Jewish, Neo-Pagan, Ethical Culture, or secular content. All the hymns I’ve found would be suitable for use in a Unitarian Universalist worship service; indeed, many of them are public domain versions of hymns in our current hymnal that are protected by copyright in some way.
I’ve just put 24 of these copyright free hymns and spiritual songs in a Google Drive folder here.
I’ll put a list of the songs currently in the folder below the fold. And I’ll be adding more copyright free hymns and spiritual songs as I find time to produce fair copies of the versions I have.
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.