Leonard Cohen in a 19th Century Vernacular
Alda Balthrop-Lewis, Production Intern
Last week I took a microphone to a “singing” that happens regularly at the University Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where a group gathers to sing four-part a cappella spirituals from a book called The Sacred Harp. We’ve had several listeners over the past few months write in to suggest producing a show about this folk singing tradition (and we have been looking for a music show). Developed in the southern United States in the late 19th century, it’s called Sacred Harp singing, after the title of its song book, and there are now groups all over the country who meet weekly to sit in a square and sing together.
The sound clip here is of the University of Minnesota Student Singing last week. Each singing begins with an hour of song, followed by brief announcements and a short break, then another hour of song. Any of the participants can propose a song, stand in the middle of the hollow square (the name for the square sitting formation), and direct the rhythm. There is no official leader. The first thing you’ll hear on this recording is preparation for the song: a woman announces the number, 455. You can hear silence as people find the page. A bus goes by outside. Then they begin to tune, deciding where the pitch of the song should be. They raise the pitch. They sing the first chord together, then the whole song once through on the syllables fa, sol, la, mi. Then, finally, they sing the song once through on the words, “I want a sober mind, an all sustaining eye.” After the song is over the next song is proposed, and they begin again (though, as you’ll hear, there is no rule against a joke in between).
I am fascinated by this tradition, in part because of its unusual musical notation, which you can see in the image above. More deeply moving, however, is the enthusiasm these songs inspire in the singers and the communities that grow up around the songs. Small groups are proliferating all over the country. The Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association lists singings in 35 states. From Hoboken, Georgia, where there is a group of singers (mostly family, mostly Baptist) who have been singing together for so long that they don’t know how long, to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where the singing takes place above a bar, people in many parts of the United States are finding connections across the hollow square.
I am moved by the joy and kindness these people demonstrate to each other, and I am excited about one woman’s project to arrange Leonard Cohen for her Sacred Harp group. Maybe there, some day, we’ll find our music show.