Monday, December 02, 2013

I wish...

I wish that folks would promote their vision on the merits of their vision and not on the demerits of the vision of others. Will yours stand on its own merits? Why not try it? Maybe you'll like it.

I'm thinking of art, fashion, opinion and such like. There are topics -- such as morals, where half of the discussion is pointing out what is immoral -- that require the negative alongside the positive.

Let me use Sacred Harp and its history as an example. In the early 20th century we had 3 different "visions" of where the music, books and singing conventions should go.* Each made its own way, with not a little strife and rancor. Yet in modern times the good of the whole has often been thought greater than the good of the vision of the part (or "third"). But not always so.

There are discussions we need to have. All the differences don't need to be swept under a rug to pretend they don't exist. This is not the way forward. I've engaged in some spirited discussions regarding our music and its history. For a time we pretended that the James Book altos could have miraculously and accidentally came out the same as other previously written altos without any copying. But that doesn't access reality. For whatever reasons and in whatever manner, in his book J. S. James credited altos as their own editorial work when they obviously came from somewhere else. The Cooper book folks paid in kind, going all "Daniel Read" on them, arranging James book tunes, and printing them as their own.** And both of these streams were outside the White family, who should have had the rights to book (at least ethically so, if not legally). These kinds of things leave a bad taste all around, and rightly so.

Discuss passionately what ought to be discussed. Make your arguments. Hold firm to your favorite revision. But don't stab in the back your fellow singers who also love their particular revision. Don't blind-side them with "back room deals". Let's be open and above board.

When I interviewed Bill Reynolds in 1997, he was clear that his preference was the Denson Revision of The Sacred Harp. But he added, "I like my coffee black, but don't mind if you want to dilute yours with milk and sugar."*** While I would now dispute the allusion that James/Denson stream of Sacred Harp is undiluted, I heartily recommend Reynolds's spirit of the matter. We should adopt it. De gustibus non est disputandum ("There is no disputing of tastes"). Yes, that's right. One book is not "better" than another. It is a matter of taste.

Because I am vocal in pointing out what I believe are historical errors and misstatements about the Cooper Book -- the book of my singing heritage -- I may be perceived of as against the other books. Nothing could be farther from the truth. When a group formed to reprint the The Sacred Harp, 4th Edition with Supplement ("J. L. White vision"), I made a donation toward that goal. It was a day I had hoped for long before that. When Warren Steel compiled history of the composers represented in the 1991 Edition of the Sacred Harp ("James vision"), I waded in to see how I could help. When shares became available for the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, I bought stock. From the sidelines I have cheered as other shape-note books have been compiled, and bought into The Trumpet idea to print new tunes by shape-note composers from all three visions (and beyond). Knowing The B. F. White Sacred Harp ("Cooper vision") would be reprinted, I shared my opinions on how I thought we could make it the best book it could be. Some ideas I had were accepted & some were rejected. 

Just because we work hardest on our own farm doesn't mean we want (or should want) the worst for someone else's!

Is there history you don't like? Are there songs you don't prefer? Is there an editorial choice that just grates on your nerves? Likely so. Some songs may not contain your preferred stanzas. One book may not contain your favorite song. But they are hardly pedestrian pablum or shameful substances  just because of that. We can sing songs from all the books, and choose the songs we prefer when and where we are able. When you can't, do unto you neighbors as you would have them do unto you. Sing their songs.

Rather than judge so severely, we can instead extend the grace of the words of the great English poet William Cowper, which are found on page 168 in all three Sacred Harps: "Forgive the song that falls so low, beneath the gratitude I owe."

* The W. M. Cooper revision, the J. S. James revision, and the J. L. White 4th edition w/supplement
** "It is not only ungenerous but unjust to publish the works of any author without his consent.---Irritated beyond measure at the unprovoked robbery committed upon the American Singing Book by the Editor of the Worcester Collection and having no redress but by retaliation there being then no law in existance (sic) to prevent such abuses I availed myself of that opportunity to publish some peices (sic) from the Worcester Collection to which I had no right." -- Excerpt of a June 1793 letter from Daniel Read to Jacob French, as printed in Music in the USA: a Documentary Companion, Judith Tick, editor, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 74). The original manuscripts are among the Daniel Read Papers at the New Haven Colony Historical Society in New Haven, Connecticut.
*** Away Here in Texas, March-April 1997, p. 8

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