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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Sound of The Sacred Harp

Ever since our soul-satisfying “Sacred Harp” sing at Unity Hall, Barneveld, I have been trying to think of a way to share the shapenote experience in writing.  Knowing in advance that I won’t do it justice, here goes...
First a quick word about shapenote and Sacred Harp. We call the genre shapenote because the notes are written on ordinary staves but with four shapes which are sung as Fa, Sol, La and Mi.  This was designed as a means of helping people to read music by making the intervals easier to visualize. The Sacred Harp is a collection of sacred songs, odes and anthems first compiled in 1844 and revised four times since.* These are sung acapella by men and women  sitting facing  into a square; so, in effect the singers themselves are the only audience.  We do it because we wholeheartedly love doing it and because doing it feels so good.
We have no tryouts because we believe the human voice is the Sacred Harp we were given. Thus, every voice is welcome. And we have no rehearsals because singing Sacred Harp is worship, not a performance.
The first thing you’ll notice at a shapenote singing is the strong, bone-strumming sound of its open harmony - a lot of fourths and fifths. For me, it’s gospel with guts.  At first hearing, these harmonies penetrated right to my marrow and I knew I had to do it.  Many others report the same instant addiction.
We sing at full voice in four parts, tenor, treble, alto and bass; and since both men and women sing tenor and treble, it often sounds like six parts.  Unlike other choral singing, we simply let it fly.  We say, half jokingly, that if you can hear the person on either side of you, you aren’t singing loud enough.   Most of us have learned to walk a fine line, singing at our loudest but in a voice “natural and unpretentious” (i.e. not standing out) as directed in our book’s section on Rudiments.  We have no soloists and there are no stars. Mercifully, those whose voices tend toward shrill or piercing generally soften their vocal edges out of kindness to fellow singers’ eardrums.  
By tradition, each song is called (chosen) by a leader who stands facing the tenors and beats the tempo while all of us beat the tempo along with the leader.  Often, a leader’s facial expression and body language sets the affect with which the song is sung - unbridled joy,  square-shouldered resolution,  soaring gratitude and so forth. The songs really do feel fresh each time.
We don’t care about crisp attacks and cut-offs. We scoop or bounce into notes when that’s what feels right. It’s pretty much all forte.  We do little talking, typically singing “lessons” of  50 minutes, separated by 10 minute breaks.  In a day, we may sing close to 100 pieces so lustily that we’ve had an aerobic workout.  Nobody sings Sacred Harp diffidently.
Sacred Harp is a wholeheartedly welcoming tradition. Like AA, we are a ragtag bunch unified only by a single God-inspired purpose. Our tradition does not recognize the differences between us.  But it surely recognizes our unity; and somehow, it’s easy to feel unity with others so fully invested and unguarded in the moment. 
Because we sing in a square, we enjoy countless spontaneous connections as we catch other singers’ eyes in moments of ecstatic joy, a shared smile, warm encouragement or simply unspoken friendship.  And because this is an old, old tradition, we feel connected  to the countless singers who have gone before us and to the composers who have given us these amazing songs to sing.
You can hear it on cd’s or see it on a dvd but to get the experience, you need to be there in the midst of it.  Singing in the square with other Sacred Harp singers feels like sitting in a waterfall, raising your voice into its raw power.  Singing together we are that waterfall, pounding with the relentless pulse of human voices pouring out love to the God our hearts know better than our minds ever can.
You can find local singings at  We have seat waiting for you.
*see The Sacred Harp - 1991 edition

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Old Friends, Brother Birds

Last week I finally got together with one of my very closest grade school friends. We had been trying for months to find a time to meet and, when a little island of time suddenly bobbed into view, we landed on it before it could get swamped by the waves of our present lives.
We had last seen one another in 1954; so we decided to meet at a “retro” diner which could well have been a location if anyone wanted to make a film of us as 14 year olds. We shared the the factual milestones of our lives, the station stops of our careers, thumbnail glimpses of our wives and children,  and what we are doing now.
We have each lived full, deeply productive and well traveled lives, his quite extraordinary in the weight of his intellectual accomplishments which he does not mention.  The seeds of what we have become were powerfully sown and nurtured in grade school. Looking at us then few would have imagined the way our lives were to blossom, but looking back now it all seems so natural.
We spoke of teachers and classmates we remembered and relived times that still glow in our memories. We remembered each other’s homes and families, sports we played and walks we took together, the innocence of boyhood.
As I think about this old friend I realize we were fed in the same nest, like brother birds during our formative years.  For me the twigs of that nest still exhale indelible scents - fresh-waxed floors on opening day,  onion grass crushed beneath our feet on the playing field, those blue mimeographed lesson plans and tests. I recall testing our wings in dodgeball games, football plays, acrobatic endeavors, each of us learning to play to his own strengths - some of us agile, some stolid.  We were fed important morsels by some nurturing birds who can never be properly recompensed. By teacher Ben Long whose face and eyes lit up when we wrote well. By coaches Don McQuade and Bill Trauth who taught us the importance of sportsmanship while working on our basic skills. By music director Paul Rotella who enjoyed, really enjoyed, working with our unruly boys glee club. And by Kemp, the face of the school kitchen smiling as he brought out lunches far better than we remember.
Looking into the same alert, curious eyes after all these years, it was easy to recall why we had been so close.  It’s a week later now and I still feel warmed by the thought that we are back in each other’s lives. For lots of reasons it may be a while before we find another island of time to share, but that’s ok because we are still brother birds.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Each year about this time a little miracle happens; a group of men gathers together together to sing and to rejoice in one another’s company. This past weekend, the Colgate Thirteen members from the 1960’s, now calling ourselves Vintage Thirteen, met once again on the shores of Lake George hosted at the beautiful home of Paul Bradley ’67 and his ever-gracious wife Linda.
Each year we come together to sing the songs we sang as undergraduates and to marvel as our closeness ripens, embracing us all along with our wives and significant others.  Seeing us together, an outsider once remarked - ‘men don’t bond this way unless they’ve just killed a deer together’.  Well, we’ve learned they can and do.
 We stand together, side by side, staggering our breathing so the musical line is unbroken, feeling each other’s warmth, sensing the times when we are completely in tune and the occasional times we need mid-course correction.  It’s a magic feeling when the group of us becomes a single singing instrument.  It's an out of body experience.
Singing this kind of music, at least doing it well,  requires not only the skill to blend but also wholehearted commitment to sing as one. Each of us, whatever the natural timbre of his voice, chooses to soften its edges to intertwine with the others in quality, pitch and volume. We pay attention to our leader, to each other, to our audience and to the story each song tells. To “sell” a song we all have to be together inside its story and to experience the thrill of  making it happen right now.
We have come a long way, this group of old friends, now in our 60’s and 70’s. Each of us retains the heart of the person he was in our college years, but we have each been shaped by the nicks and dings of life. Our own edges are softer now. To be sure we are softer physically (alas), but happily our egos are even softer. 
These reunion weekends are a miracle of harmony, musically and in terms of fellowship. The afterglow is much like what happens in the Christmas season when we wonder why it can’t always be this way - why we can't always bear deep love in our hearts for our fellows.
Come to think of it we can if all of us the world over will learn to blend, will stand shoulder to shoulder committed to harmony.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


There’s no place quite like Barneveld for feeling close to our fellow creatures!
We set out Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend for a bike ride, with hopes of riding a couple of hours before the rain which was expected. It was hot and humid but the breeze in our faces kept us cool -- well, cool enough. As usual there was hardly any traffic and the farms and fields slid backwards past us as we rolled forward past them.
What made it special was a few wonderful moments shared with others who were enjoying  God’s bounty with us along the way.
A mile after turning left off Steuben Valley Road to head uphill to Holland Patent, a heron treated us to his prehistoric take-off and flight in a swampy marsh. He may or may not have seen us, but seeing him let us know we were in deep country.
We made the long gradual ascent, puffing happily and breathing in summer’s kaleidoscopic array of fragrances until we reached the top of the hill where a few homes have set themselves down with commanding views. In the driveway of one of these, a mother stood behind her teenaged daughter lovingly brushing the girl's golden hair. The girl held a mirror and she and her mom seemed to have eye to eye contact. We waved to them. They waved back. “Good mornings” were shared in a moment of sweet connection.
Then the super downhill swoop into Holland Patent - we had earned it with our uphill.  “WHEE!” kind of sums it up.
On the way across from Holland Patent, we first saw an Amish family drawn by two horses coming toward us. It looked to us as though they were heading for church and we exchanged open smiles and waves as we passed one another. Another connection and we pedaled on. 
Two miles later we could see another buggy coming but this one was practically flying behind a proudly trotting black horse, its ears pricked up with the joy of its own speed. An Amish boy held the reins, wearing his black go-to-meeting suit and blue shirt and radiating with the biggest most gleeful open mouthed smile either of us had ever seen. Was he late for church? If so, he surely didn't mind. We waved, he waved. It almost seemed the horse waved too.
On the way home, we shared the road first with a couple of partridge, whirring up at the side of a cornfield and then with an eagle who flew from his roadside snack to a nearby branch to let us pass. 
We got home just as a few raindrops fell. It had been a blessed two hours and five minutes, 25 gorgeous Barneveld miles and smiles we'll carry with us a long, long time.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

For The Love Of Old Time Music and Ballads

This weekend Barneveld will be treated to the second annual Stone Soup Reunion. It will be a wonderful time to enjoy many kinds of music made by friends and families with ties to the beautiful Barneveld area.
I am thrilled to be among the performers - Sunday 2-3 PM is my slot and I am hereby shamelessly promoting attendance. 
There will be several performers focusing on what we might call handmade, acoustic music - some blues, some bluegrass and some folk.
For myself, this will be a chance to share the old time songs and ballads I love so dearly. Many of these originated in England, the Childe Ballads, but flourished in the hearts and hands of Appalachian singers each of whom added their own uniquely American tunefulness.  And adding-adapting is what true folk music is all about. As soon as a piece becomes set in stone, it is no longer folk. I learned reverence for real folk ballads from my singing partner when I sang in the 60’s as Daniel & The Deacon. Gerry Parsons later became a legendary head of ethnomusicology at the Library of Congress until his passing; and I will sing in memory of this great champion of America’s true folk music.
The literature in some of these songs is breathtakingly beautiful and haunting - every time I sing these lines the people and their stories come to life for me. 
As I hope they will for you.
Lady Margaret, sittin’ in her high hall door
Combin’ her long yellow hair
Oh she saw sweet William and his new made bride
Riding from the church so near.
She throwed down her ivory comb
She throwed back her long yellow hair 
She says I’ll go down and bid him farewell
And never more go there

Friday, July 15, 2011

Biking In Barneveld - Best Anywhere

We have been on our bicycles this week - not long trips but delightful sojourns of twenty or so miles. Once the temperatures dropped below the mid 80’s we just had to get up and go.
Though we’ve biked some of the world’s most famous scenic routes, we find the biking in and around Barneveld uniquely satisfying.   Yesterday’s ride, for example...
We pedaled out the driveway at just about 9AM; the Canada Geese watched as we headed out. They seemed pleased that they’d now be able to graze (and, ahem, fertilize) our lawn without disruption for awhile.  Sigh.
The dirt road felt good beneath the tires as our muscles got the message that they’d need to wake up and work.  Crossing the bridge over the West Canada, we noted the flow of water at the spillway and felt a sense of camaraderie with the first fisherfolk of the day as they waded into the stream. 
It was almost chilly as we biked through the village of Trenton Falls and passed Trenton Meadow just as the sun just began to spread across the grove and grasses, sparkling the remaining dewdrops and lifting a light morning mist.
Our breath came in happy puffs as we rode up the rise and through the railroad tunnel (we have to say “beep” in there). Then a sweet swing past Evergreen and Sugarbush and we floated down to route 12/28. Imagine! Not a car in sight, so we were able to bike across without stopping. That took us into and through the town of Barneveld, the historic homes and old stores breathing out their story without a trace of pretense. 
And then, as if passing through a scrim, we are away down Steuben Valley Road!  Field after field, rolling into wooded hills behind. Cows grazing, twitching tails and gathering beneath the leafiest trees in preparation for higher sun to come. Farmhouses and gorgeous barns passing us one after the other. In the gentle rhythm of biking we have time to enjoy the touches each family has added with flowerbeds, stone walls and places to rest in the shade.
The scents tell us the farmers have been at work.  The smell of fresh mown hay and, yes, the spreader has left its perfume - a heady aroma that is amazingly sweet despite itself.
There are hills to climb, with cornflowers, elderberries and gateway openings for the tractors and wagons. There are tractors humming their motored tune in the fields - today they are collecting round bales.
And there are the downhills! We fly with the hawk above us as we swoop down and around gentle bends. This makes the climbs more than worthwhile.  
We are headed back to our house. It has been a couple of hours. We’ve seen, maybe six cars in all. We have had the Kuyahoora Valley country to ourselves -- and what a country it is!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Fly Fishing - True Atonement

On any given day in the West Canada Creek you'll find flyfishers contentedly working the stream a respectful, collegial distance apart. 
We hear from friends who don't flyfish that they can't imagine what moves people to do this.  We think it has to do with "at-one-ment" and we hope others will write in with their own thoughts.
Flyfishing has a unique way of putting a person "At One" with Life physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. To begin with, we are largely made of water; and standing in it just feels right, the cool caress of the current soothes even "the savage breast" and we settle into the experience, into the very moment.
Then there's the necessary full attention that engrosses a flyfisher completely in many ways... What insects are flying, floating, rising?  What's the condition of the stream - its temperature, current? What effect is the day itself having on the trout? How and where are they feeding, protecting themselves, preserving energy?
And always the rapt endeavor to engage 'the big one' in tender battle. There's joy in the moment of "winning" and gently looking our conquest in the eye as we release it back to its home. There's even joy in the "dan it" moment when we realize that the fish has won, slipped the hook and shimmered away.
There will be other times for both the flyfisher and the fish. And, in all of these times, a flyfisher will be in complete atonement.