What it looks like when people are really singing

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!)

Bay Area Sacred Harp

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).


The 6th annual Palo Alto All Day Sacred Harp Singing… singers came from all over California, and from Oregon, Louisiana, and Vermont. The temperature in the room went over 90 degrees, so we ended a half an hour early to make sure no one passed out. Here’s what we looked like in full cry, with fans going full blast:

Trebles (L-R, F-B): Rebecca, Inder, Arnold; Greg, Leah, Ruth; ???, Terry
Tenors (L-R, F-B): Steve, Mark, Yuka; Pat, Gerardo, Paul, Erica, Mary
Basses (L-R, F-B): Ed, Bob, Alex; Peter
Altos (L-R, F-B): Erika, Leigh; Janet, Marsha, Lena, Lorraine
(More than a dozen singers are not visible in this photo.)

What I did with my Saturday

“The punk rock of choral music” — that’s what some people call Sacred Harp singing. It’s loud, highly rhythmic, often with fast tempi. And that’s what I did with my Saturday: I went to an all-day Sacred Harp singing. We sang nearly 90 songs out of a tunebook called The Sacred Harp, including a tune called “Rainbow,” originally composed in 1785 by Timothy Swan:

And this one, called Zion, composed in 1959:

Like punk rock, this is music that can be cathartic, ecstatic, raucous. Or just plain fun.

No one sings in church any more

On the Sacred Harp Friends page on Facebook, Katie posted a link to a blog post by Thom Schulz, titled “Why They Don’t Sing on Sunday Anymore.” Schulz’s reasons why people don’t sing in church: too often services are spectator events; church music is dominated by professionals, to the point of squeezing us amateurs out; sometimes the volume gets cranked up so high people just stop singing; the hymns are unfamiliar or hard to sing.

Katie then noted that Sacred Harp singers do sing, and we sing fervently — because there are no spectators, there are no professionals, it’s loud but not deafening, and Sacred harp singers have been singing pretty much the same tunes for a century and a half.

Actually, in my church people do sing. Amy, the senior minister, and I made a pact some years ago that the first hymn would mostly get chosen from a pool of ten or so hymns; that way, the kids can memorize ten or so hymns and know them by heart. And indeed the kids (and the adults) do memorize those hymns, and they do sing with fervor and gusto. In one recent service, I watched as one of our more cynical upper elementary kids stood on a chair, hung on to dad, and sang with utter abandon; cynicism gone, this child was completely lost in the hymn.

Given my experience, I’m with Thom Schulz: congregational singing does not need spectators, over-professionalism, blare, or crappy songs. Congregational singing can aim towards joy, towards ecstatic union with the universe through song. Congregational singing can be — should be — cynical kids belting out a favorite hymn at the tops of their voices, completely lost in the moment.


Sacred Harp Convention

Once every three years, the All-California Sacred Harp Convention comes to the Bay area. It’s going on this weekend.

What is Sacred Harp, you ask? It has nothing to do with harps, but you sing from a book called The Sacred Harp. At a Sacred Harp convention, you sing for three hours in four-part harmony at the top of your lungs along with 150 other singers who range in age from 8 to 80-something. Then you break for this fabulous potluck lunch, where you eat more good food than you can believe. Then you go back sing again for another three hours in the afternoon. Then you go back the next day and do it all over again.

Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church, Alpharetta, Ga.

A little before ten this morning, Carol dropped me off at Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Georgia. The church has been engulfed by upscale suburban sprawl — office parks, gated communities, tasteful shopping malls, impeccably maintained four-lane roads — but once you get on the church grounds, you enter into a different cultural landscape. The church, a plain and attractive brick building, is surrounded on two sides by moss-covered gravel parking areas shaded by trees; quite a few cars were already nestled in shady parking spots. Behind the church was a cemetery with quite a few older gravestones, and some gravestones that looked very new.


Above: Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church, Alpharetta, Ga.

Inside, the church was quite plain, as you’d expect in a Primitive Baptist Church: little ornamentation, plain white walls, simple but attractive pews — and no musical instruments. Fifty or so singers were gathered up at the front of the church. I went to sit in the bass section, and noticed that in the hymnal racks on the backs of the pews were hymnals, Bibles, and fans in case it got too hot. I opened up my copy of The Sacred Harp, and got ready to sing.

The singing, the 146th session of the annual Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention, belonged to this other cultural landscape, removed from the gated communities and office parks. It’s music that’s meant to be performed and shared, not consumed; it’s a democratic musical tradition where everyone sings, and anyone can lead a tune if they want to. The singing rose up into that plain white sun-washed church, loud and triumphant. It had that old-time lonesome sound that lets you know that in spite of all the sorrow and troubles we face, God is in heaven and all is right with the world.

Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention

Above: View from the bass section, 146th session of the Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention

A seven year old girl got up to lead “Africa,” an old Isaac Watts hymn — a hymn seems to me to express a Universalist theology of hope and assurance — set to music by William Billings in the late eighteenth century. Between the words to the hymn and that self-possessed girl leading the other singers so well, I got a little choked up and couldn’t sing for a bit, and maybe there were some tears running down my cheeks.

Lunch was served in the time-honored custom of dinner-on-the-grounds. There was a small kitchen building behind the church. Extending from that was a long table, perhaps fifty feet long, built on concrete blocks. Everyone who had brought food to share laid it out on this long table. Over the table was a roof to keep the sun and rain showers off, and between the posts holding up the roof were boards set at a height where you could put your plate while you stood and ate and talked with everyone around you. The woods stood near at hand, and some people from the church instructed us to through any food that was left on our plates out to the varmints in the woods.

Carol had come to the singing by now, and we got our dinners: ham, pulled pork, collard greens, fried okra, perfectly ripe cantaloupe, broccoli casserole, and some of the best layer cake I’ve ever eaten. We stood and ate and talked. I talked with Henry from Alabama, with whom I talked universalist theology. I talked with Nathan, an art historian who’s moving to North Dakota, who specializes in spiritual painters in the southwestern U.S. in the early 20th century. We talked with Shawn and Natalie, who live in Melbourne, Australia, and who sing Sacred harp there. I can’t remember who all we talked with.

The singing was just as good in the afternoon session, if not a little better. During the afternoon break, I got involved in a brief and somewhat technical discussion with a couple of fourth- or fifth- or maybe sixth-generation Sacred Harp singers on the proper tempo for “David’s Lamentation,” a William Billings composition. The piece has become a standard in the repertoire of college choirs, where it is often sung at a slow tempo, and apparently some people have tried leading it slowly at Sacred Harp singings. But the three of us all agreed it should be led at a fast pace (not that my opinion counts), which is both the traditional way to sing it in the South (and not coincidentally, the way Billings clearly preferred it to be sung).

The singing ended. Jeff offered to give me a ride back to the motel. We pulled out of the parking lot, leaving behind a cultural landscape devoted to shared experience, democratic traditions, and matters of the spirit, and re-entered a cultural landscape dominated by consumption and competition.

Russellville, Ark., to Montgomery, Ala.

Before we left Russellville, Carol wanted to stop in and check out Jim and Ed’s Old House, which was a sort of cross between an antique store and a thrift store down the street from the motel. One of the proprietors — I never did learn whether it was Jim or Ed — greeted us cheerfully and told us to look around, and to be sure to ask him if we had any questions.

After we looked around a bit, he remarked on my height: “You’re taller than I am,” he said. “How tall are you?” said Carol. She had to repeat her question a couple of times before he could hear her. “Six one,” he said. Carol pointed to me, said, “Six five,” and held up six fingers, then five fingers. He smiled and nodded. I said my height came from my German roots, and asked him if he had any German in him. “No,” he said, “no German in me. But I’m part Indian.” “Which tribe?” I said. “Cherokee,” he said, as if there were no other possibility. “And they’re tall?” I said. “Oh yes,” he said.

He showed us around the house, and told us how they were going to pull down this wall, remove the kitchen, and greatly expand the space they had to show their merchandise. Carol finally bought a little pitcher in the shape of sweet corn. But we kept right on talking, and it took about ten minutes to say good bye, and another five to actually get out the door.

We ate lunch at the Panda Buffet in Lonoke, Arkansas. Carol went into a thrift shop while I walked around town. The malls along the interstate have sucked much of the life out of the old downtown, but the county courthouse and its attendant law offices mean that there are enough people to support a few restaurants and small businesses, a used book store, and even a storefront church. I was disappointed that the used book store had closed for the day. But then I came across a Tudor Revival wood frame church building, a once beautiful building now in sad disrepair. It stood a block from the old depot building, nicely sited on the corner of Second and Depot streets, a building with a definite character and personality.


(A little research on the Web tonight reveals that the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and that it even has its own Facebook page.)

I couldn’t help comparing First Christian Church to the storefront church a block or two away. Storefront churches avoid the expense and hassle of maintaining their own building, but there is no beauty or character in their architecture.

As we drove through Mississippi, I was amazed by how incredibly green everything was. And how wet everything was — the air was humid, we hit little rainshowers throughout the day, and in some of the fields there was even standing water. California never feels this green, or this wet, not even in the depths of the winter rainy season.


We stopped for coffee in Potts Camp, Mississippi, and wound up at Flick’s Country Restaurant. Carol got to talking to a couple of older white men at the table next to ours. One of them left not long after we sat down, but the other stayed and talked with us for some time. He had been a pilot in the military, flying MD-11s, and also had a private pilot license, although, as he said, “The doctors don’t let me fly any more.”

He asked where we had come from, and we told him, and he wondered what brought us to the South. Carol said we were visiting a cousin of hers in Montgomery. I asked him if he had ever heard of Sacred Harp singing. “Oh, yes,” he said, “my grandparents used to have a singing [I think he said at their church]. People used to come from a hundred fifty, two hundred miles around to sing.” I told him I was going to a Sacred Harp singing in Alpharetta, Georgia.

He told us about Flick’s Country Restaurant, and nodded at the next table over, where an elderly man sat with three other people. “That’s old Mr. Flick himself,” he said. “No longer runs the restaurant, but there’s his picture there on the wall.” The photograph he pointed out was clearly of the same man, perhaps forty years younger, with a hair style from the early 1960s.

We said we had better get on the road again; we had to make it to Montgomery tonight. “You’d better start driving,” he said, and shook both our hands before we set off.

What I did with my weekend

Sacred Harp singing convention

The view from the bass section as a singer from Bremen, Germany, (alas, I didn’t catch her name) named Eva led well over a hundred singers at a Sacred Harp singing convention this past weekend.

What was it like singing with all those people, you ask? I’ll limit myself to the physiological response. With something over thirty singers in the bass section, I could feel my whole body vibrating to the lower notes. And since this is highly rhythmic music, we could also spend time talking about entrainment from an ethnomusicological perspective.

This, by the way, is why you might want to improve congregational singing so that it’s good, rhythmic, and loud — because when you do that, it feels really good.

What I did with my weekend

I spent this past weekend singing Sacred Harp music: six hours of singing on Saturday, and another hour or so on Sunday. Sacred Harp is a kind of four-part a capella singing which originated in eighteenth century New England, migrated to the South in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and which is now undergoing a renaissance among postmodern urbanites in the northern and western parts of the U.S. Rolling Stone magazine described it as “a robust, harmonically intricate of country joy and unearthly drone.”

This is sacred music; many of the texts are by Isaac Watts, which means this music would never be sung in most Unitarian Universalist congregations, where people tend to squirm at the mention of God and Jesus. Even though I don’t agree with the theology of most of the songs we sang, nevertheless I got more religion out of singing Sacred Harp than I generally get in a Unitarian Universalist worship service. I’ve been thinking about why that is so, and here are four of my reasons:

(a) Sacred Harp singing is DIY — do-it-yourself — music. There is no paid choir director, no soloists, no experts; there are no performances or performers; everyone participates in order for the music to happen. By contrast, Unitarian Universalist worship services feel like performances in front of an audience; if I don’t show up, it won’t make much difference.

(b) Sacred Harp singing can be, and often is, an ecstatic experience. Ecstatic and transcendental experiences tend to make Unitarian Universalists very uncomfortable.

(c) There’s a broad distribution of ages among Sacred Harp singers, from the late teens to the eighties and nineties. Unitarian Universalist congregations tend to be made up mostly of people who are fifty and older.

(d) The singing is loud, exuberant, and enthusiastic. The tunes are pitched so that ordinary singers can sing them comfortably. By contrast, singing in Unitarian Universalist congregations tends to be restrained, and the tunes are pitched so high that those of us with ordinary voices can’t sing them.

I still love my Unitarian Universalist church; Sacred Harp singing would not be an adequate substitute for what I get out of my religious community. But I can still wish the Unitarian Universalism would embrace the DIY ethos, welcome ecstasy and transcendence, include younger people, and sing better.