Sacred Harp

I love going to Sacred Harp singings. I don't get to go a lot these days, what with young kids and a number of other things on my plate that I think deserve more attention, but when I do, I have a wonderful time. Here's what goes on at a singing:

When you go to a singing, you step into a large room with benches or chairs arranged into a square with an open area at the center — they call it "the hollow square". Each side of the square corresponds to a voice part; basses are men, most altos are women, and the remaining two parts, treble and tenor (or lead), are sung in octaves by men and women. Treble and tenor have about the same range, but tenor has the melody. You choose your part based on your voice range and personal preference; my voice is a little high for bass, and a little low for tenor, but I like the feel of the bass lines, so I sing bass. You sit where you choose; most beginners choose tenor.

Usually, your first time, you can borrow a book. They're not all that expensive, though, and if you have any taste at all, you'll probably want one of your own. The words are hymns, and many of the tunes are recognizable variants of common hymn tunes, but the music is not written like the hymnals you are likely to see in your average church, to the extent that your average church uses hymnals at all these days. Instead, they're written in open score, one voice part per staff, across pages that are broader than they are tall. Most disconcertingly, the notes aren't round, either; their shape differs based on what degree of the scale they are in the key of the tune in question. The major scale, then, looks like this, with the solfège symbols used to sing it:

The familiar tune, Old Hundred, looks like the below. Note that the tune is in the third line, the tenor — this is from the 1911 edition, but it's about the same now:

It sounds like this:

Music geekery to follow:


It seems confusing at first, but it's pretty straightforward once you get used to it. In a major scale, the whole-steps between degrees 1, 2, and 3 are sung to fa, sol, la; then there's a half-step up to the next fa, which begins a whole-step fa, sol, la sequence where you'd usually expect it, on 4, 5, and 6. Finally, there's another whole-step up to 7, which gets the syllable mi. Then the pattern starts over again for the next octave. The minor scale is the same, except it starts on the second la of the major scale. Accidentals are mostly ignored, to surprisingly good effect. (The whole system is, as I understand it, derived from the Lancashire fasola, a four-syllable solfège system simplified from the old English method of Playford and Morley.) To learn to read the music, all a person needs is to look at what shape the notes are, and whether the next note is higher or lower by a little, or a lot.

Once most people are settled in, someone may open with a prayer, depending on how formal a singing it is. (I'm always surprised by the number of non-religious people who love Sacred Harp singing, but they're of course heartily welcomed; Sacred Harp singings are open to anyone.) Then the singing starts. Someone will step into the open middle of the square and call out the page number of the tune they will lead. People will find it, someone skilled at setting the pitch for tunes will sing the starting pitches, and a wave of the leader's hand and a confident bellow starts things off.

The first time through a tune, we sing the shapes; that is, instead of the printed words, everyone sings the syllables of their part in a glorious mishmash of fasola. Then, we sing the words. First of all, you may notice that it's deafeningly loud, everyone singing at the top of their lungs. Next, you may notice that it's exhilarating!

After the tune ends, the leader will sit down, and the next person will do the same. Usually leading goes around the square, section by section, person by person. Even if you're brand new, you'll probably be asked to come to the center and lead. You could demur, but I wouldn't recommend it. Usually you can come to the center with a more experienced leader, and hear the sound from the best spot: the center of the square. (Leading isn't hard; watch how other people wave their hands, and you'll see the pattern.) If you thought it was exhilarating before, this will lift your hair off!

It goes on and on, you get hoarse and tired, and you're happy to stop for a break when that happens. Break is over when a few people sit down and someone starts leading a tune. You'll go home exhausted and with your throat sore, and probably want to do it again soon.

Here's one last tune, one of my favorites: William Billings' David's Lamentation:

Doesn't that sound like a good way to spend some time?

Jesus on Hanukkah

I was fascinated the other night, when I was reading in John, to run across this in John 10:22-23:

And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon's porch.

What got my attention was that I've read this passage dozens of times and never noticed the "feast of the dedication." I couldn't think of a feast surrounding the dedication of either temple except for that of Hanukkah, and looking it up, only Hanukkah took place in winter. I hadn't realized it was ever mentioned in the Bible, and it turns out I was wrong.

Historically, Hanukkah was a celebration of a military and religious victory, led by Judah Maccabee, over the ruling Greeks, culminating in the rededication of the temple and restoration of worship there. (There's no support for the story of one day's worth of oil burning for eight days in the early documents.) I think the nationalistic nature of the celebration, especially in those days, sheds a bit of light on what happens next (John 10:24):

Then came the Jews round about him, and said unto him, How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly.

Many Jews of that time expected the Messiah to be a Judah Maccabee-like figure, a military and political leader who would lead the Jewish people to freedom. In the context of a nationalistic feast, it makes sense that they would expect a man they thought might be the Messiah to announce it publicly.

The enraging effect of Jesus' answer, which they perceived as blasphemy — they tried to stone Him for it — must have been compounded by its peaceful and extra-national nature (John 10:25-30):

Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father's name, they bear witness of me. But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father which gave them me, is greater than all, and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand.

I and my Father are one.

So in the middle of a jingoistic celebration of a military victory, Jesus is asked if He is the expected leader that will come to save the Jewish people from oppression. He responds with an answer that promises salvation from a very different sort of oppression, for a people that is His own, drawn from many nations, and then He claims equality with God the Father.

It's no wonder the people he spoke to were angry; He was clearly not one to be swayed by public opinion. But His Messiahship was a far greater blessing than that which people expected of Him!

We Shall Sleep, But Not Forever

Compiling a hymnal is fascinating, as you have a reason to look into the history of how each hymn has been presented in other hymnals, as well as what you can find of the oral tradition. This particular hymn presented a number of surprises. First, its text by J. E. Goodson, Jr., #233 from D. H. Goble's Primitive Baptist Hymn Book:

  1. We shall sleep, but not forever —
    We shall rest beneath the trees;
    We shall wake to live forever
    In the land where Jesus is;
    Then weep not for me,
    Then weep not for me,
    For I'm going o'er death's river,
    And you soon will follow me.

  2. Yes, I feel death's chills upon me,
    And my friends are all in tears,
    But my Saviour still upholds me,
    And has banished all my fears:
    Then weep not for me, &c.

  3. Oh, the grave lies cold before me,
    And we're called awhile to part,
    Yet his words, "I'll never leave thee,"
    Live — still live within my heart:
    Then weep not for me, &c.

  4. Oh, to meet again in heaven,
    What a blessing it will be!
    There with all our sins forgiven,
    And from death forever free:
    Then weep not for me, &c.

I found a number of hymnals, Primitive Baptist and otherwise, with a text beginning "We shall sleep, but not forever," but they turned out to be a different hymn, similar only in spirit, written by Mary Ann Kidder. In fact, even usually reliable sites like Hymnary.org conflate the two, treating it as a single hymn of uncertain attribution. At any rate, I found myself without a printed source for a tune to this hymn.

Luckily, I found this:

I'm not completely sure who Glenda Campbell is, but she sings beautifully, and her tunes for various hymns from D.H. Goble's hymn book are usually in line with what's familiar to me. In this case, she taught me a new good tune. Here it is in my hymnal-style arrangement:

(Click the small image to see a full-size version.)

One challenge of arranging a tune from one singing is that each person, and each congregation, ornaments a tune in their own way. It's hard from one instance to tell for certain what notes are intrinsic to the tune and what is ornament. For instance, on the word "trees" at the end of the first phrase, there is a flicker of notes that are clearly ornament; I've omitted them. But is the pair of quarter-notes, D to C, an ornament on what should be written as a half-note C? If I had more recordings of other people singing the same tune, I could go by what's common among them, but in this case I don't.

I'd be interested to hear from anyone who sings this tune — or any other one — for these words, about what I may have gotten wrong, or about what other tunes people use.