Sunday, December 23, 2007

Rethinkin our thinkin: on tradition

Rethinkin' our thinkin': some comments on Sacred Harp "myths" (concluded)

Myth # 6. On the place of tradition.

My great-great-grandfather, Edmund Harris Sanders, was born in Georgia (possibly Morgan County) 8 years before B. F. White & E. J. King published The Sacred Harp. He came to Texas after stays in Mississippi and Louisiana, and sometime between his birth in Georgia and anyone I knew remembered him, he became a Sacred Harp singer. His son was a singing school teacher, and two sons-in-law (one who also taught some) were the two men responsible for keying the songs at the community singings. One of Sanders' grandsons had a song published in the Cooper book, which G-g-grandpa probably would have seen before his death in 1922. My father was born in 1913 and raised in the Oak Flat community of southern Rusk County, Texas. In those days the community held a monthly Sunday afternoon Sacred Harp singing, as well as an annual Sacred Harp singing. From these singings my father learned what Sacred Harp IS, and anything that varied much from that wasn't quite Sacred Harp. However Grandpa and Uncle Joe and Aunt Axie and Aunt Donie Lyles did it was Sacred Harp. How could there be any question about that? Dad had very definite opinions on tempo (not too fast) and practice (it's not Sacred Harp if you don't sing the notes), and he remained a little skeptical of a red-backed book that he didn't know existed until he was near 70 years old. He could not sanction singing a song without singing the syllables first, even when we sang a few songs from the Sacred Harp in church worship services. Dad might have even argued for the use of a tuning fork, had not Uncle Joe Chapman (the tuning fork son-in-law) died and my Dad's grandfather began keying the songs "offhand", as he called it (which I guess has the general idea of impromptu or extempore as opposed to using an aid). To my father in a very real way Sacred Harp always was and would always be what he experienced as he grew up in that rural East Texas community. I expect such is roughly true of many "traditional" singers.

Perhaps that illustrates the strength of tradition in Sacred Harp. Tradition is a good thing. It keeps us anchored in the present and anchored to the past. But we must be mindful that traditions vary by location, and that old traditions have at times given way to new traditions. Sometimes when new singers enter the tradition they may accept the tradition of whatever area is "tradition" for them, unmindful that a variant tradition exists elsewhere.

Some things we may hear:

We always sing the notes. But "we" really don't always. A region of singers in Texas developed a "tradition" of not singing the notes. The philosophy seemed to be that once you learn a song there is no reason to keep singing the notes. Perhaps there was involved in the distant past some compromise to pacify seven-shape singers who didn't sing the notes, trying to keep them involved in the singings. Perhaps there was a difference of opinion on which shapes were best, so they just didn't sing any. Though we usually always sing the notes, there have been times and places in which this wasn't the case.

We don't use musical instruments. Never! Rarely ever. Well sometimes. A few years ago I was quite shocked to learn that musical accompaniment had been used at Sacred Harp singings in times past, from Alabama to Texas. Not too much. But any is too much for me!!!!! Some early recordings of Sacred Harp singers (studio recordings) included organs, pianos or melodeons. It actually sounds pretty good, but none of us want to go there, do we?

We don't have special music. But on occasion, from early in the 20th century to late, small groups of singers have "performed" at Sacred Harp singings.

We don't use tuning forks (or mechanical aids) to get the pitch. The other odd remarks highlight some "odd" practices that came and went and were out of the mainstream. But the use of tuning forks is, in my opinion, a different story -- perhaps never carefully researched because we really don't want to know. It is my impression that the use of tuning forks was probably once a common practice among the Sacred Harp community. We read of pre-Sacred Harp singing school teachers and their tuning forks. In old articles it is not uncommon to find a passing reference to a tuning fork at a singing convention -- from Georgia to Texas -- with no indication that is outside the norm.

We don't perform; Sacred Harp is not listener's music. An important feature of Sacred Harp singing is its participatory nature. Hugh McGraw's saying is oft quoted: "I'll travel across the country to sing Sacred Harp, but I wouldn't cross the street to listen to it." I think I understand what Hugh meant and agree with what I think he meant. I don't go to singings to listen. I go to sing. If I want to listen to a group, quartet, etc., I'll stay home and listen to the radio or a CD. I believe what is true in my case is probably true of others. I go to singings to sing; I don't go to listen. It doesn't mean I don't enjoy the sound, or that I wouldn't enjoy listening. That is not my priority. That is not my reason for going. That doesn't exclude it for being someone else's reason for going. We can overemphasize non-performance to the point of being incorrect. Choirs, quartets and soloists target an audience -- designing their program with the listener in mind. Sacred Harp, on the other hand, is not performance. Though listeners may enjoy the sounds of Sacred Harp, singers do not perform for listeners. But there is (or at least has been) a "performance" aspect of Sacred Harp. Two things come to mind. It the 1930s in Texas, Sacred Harp contests for children were quite popular. They would display their skills before judges, and win an award based on that "performance". In a similar vein, it was once the pride of accomplished leaders to demonstrate their skills by being chosen to lead a class of singers. Only leaders considered competent were called to the floor and often led 20 or 30 minutes at a time -- quite unlike our more democratic method followed today (which obviously hasn't always been the tradition). A more recent illustration of this is the promotion of Sacred Harp through the movie Cold Mountain and the related Great High Mountain tour.

I've included a few "odd" practices to illustrate the truth of the old adage, "never say never." A couple of things may have been a more established part of Sacred Harp -- for example, women not leading -- but died out over time. Some of the "oddest" of the practices mentioned probably have little to do with tradition, beyond being spoilers of it. So what's the point? Two or three, I suppose.

Let's be mindful of other's traditions. There are general overarching traditions that reach across boundaries of geography, genealogy, and generations. There are also local traditions that develop with local singings. Rather than expecting everyone to be "just like us", we should respect the traditions (or lack thereof) of other singers and singings. I once attended a singing in which leaders were not called to the floor as is the general practice, but whoever wanted to lead simply got up and went to the center. Now I wouldn't have done it that way, but I was a guest and believed it was their singing to choose to do as they pleased. One localized tradition that is unusual outside its area is found in north Mississippi. That tradition is the use of the Sacred Harp book, but singing seven syllables instead of four. I attended the Chickasaw County (MS) Convention, and although they said to sing four if you want to, I tried to conform to their practice and sing seven instead of four. It interesting and enjoyable -- and a good workout!

Tradition is what we make it. For example, if we once used tuning forks but give that up for "offhand" keying, then "offhand" keying becomes the new tradition. Once enough time passes it will be forgotten that we ever used tuning forks and "we don't use tuning forks" becomes the new tradition. Tradition doesn't so much mean that everything always remains the same, but that "tradition" is formed slowly and over the course of time by a general consensus of the Sacred Harp community. If B. F. White could visit a singing today, there would be some things that he would find odd, and some things that are much like he left them.

Tradition is a great leveler. Those who participate in Sacred Harp outside their own region/area learn of the traditions of others, learn which traditions are universal and which are unique. It may not cure all our "quirks", but it keeps constantly bringing us back to the center.

I hope this series of posts have got you thinking about whether the way we've always heard it is the way it's always been.

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