shaped notes

I think that I seem to have acquired a new hobby.

I've known about shape note sining for years and years. The Weavers did a few songs on some albums that I remember from when I was a kid. [1] And Cordelia's Dad (with Tim Erickson) came through town when I was kid and they sang a few Shape Note songs. [2] And the Morris Dancing gathering I attend has a lot of singing and a number of really awesome singers (many of whom, I think, read this blog, so hi folks.) It's been around.

I've always been intimidated by it.

I don't come from a singing background. I made the valiant effort to be musical as a kid: I washed out of choir in fourth grade; I played clarinet in middle school but it lost its wonder about half way through (though I still have a clarinet, I don't really play); [3] I've done some very ad hoc harmony singing with Morris Dancers and elsewhere, but my memory for lyrics is bad and while that's a bunch of fun and I don't think of that as a "hobby," or as the kind of thing one really does except when one happens around other singers. And the whole "book thing," about Sacred Harp singing always confused me.

And then, I had a series of pretty great experiences. I sang at the Morris Ale and had a great time, a couple or (three?) years in a row, and this year, I think something clicked. I got to sit behind a really strong bass and suddenly I could hear "it." The harmonies made sense. The book was helpful, but I stopped worrying about getting every note right, and had fun in the moment, and somehow I was able to sing better, or something. So I kept doing it. I went to a local singing right before I moved, and I've been to four local signings and since I moved out east, and then I went to a singing convention in New York City, and sang for a whole day.

And it rocked. I'm still clearly a beginner, but I'm starting to be able to see patterns in the music, and learn the words and tunes, figure out the rhythms and all that. And given that I've failed at doing the musical thing so much before, it's so interesting to me that I get it about something musical. That I can have fun and contribute to something that's kind of awesome to be a part of: both of the tradition, and of the really intense and awesome moments created during singings.

I wish there were better words to describe all this. The appeal of driving hundreds of miles to go sit in a room with a hundred or two hundred of people you don't really know, and sing these very "rustic" 19th century protestant hymns, and have it be both a very spiritual experience, and somehow that it not be a very religious experience.

The NYC singing that I went to--on Rosh Hashanah--had the opening Prayer in Hebrew. And the Sacred Harp tradition is intentionally very ecumenical, within of course the various American Protestant communities of the 19th century. I'm very strongly of the opinion that the appeal of this whole thing is this really hard to describe thing that happens in the moment. The sense of community, the ecstatic experience of the music, the nifty thing, when you feel the harmonies in your chest and the pulse of the rhythm in your whole body. Like that's really nifty, and special and totally worth while.

I also feel a certain failure as a writer because I'm totally unable to communicate this in a way that I think borders on being sufficient. So I think I'll stop trying for the moment, and hopefully I'll sing with some of you soon.


[1]The songs were 209 (evening shade) and 155 (Northfield, which is among the most popular/familiar songs in the book and begins with the line "How Long Dear Savior").
[2]335 (Return Again,) is the one on the recording, and it gasp has an Cello/something doing the Bass part on the recording.
[3]Mostly, I think because clarinet is such an awkward instrument for folk music-type things, particularly when my ability to transpose music on the fly is slim to none.
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