and am I born to die?*

My father recently attended the 2008 Ohio State Sacred Harp Convention. Over the past nine years or so, he’s become one of the shape note (Sacred Harp in particular) fanatics who will travel all over the region to attend big singings. He loves it, but I find those types of singings to be terrifying.

When I began to sing shape note music, it was with a small Sacred Harp group in Lexington (Kentucky) that met monthly. They were very casual and spent time learning the songs. Eventually, I ended up signing with an even more casual group that met weekly. It was fun and I became a better singer because of it.

At some point, I attended the statewide singing in Kentucky, and it was such an overwhelming and frustrating experience that I never wanted to go back to anything like that again. They sang songs I didn’t know too fast for me to even think of learning them. What kind of fun is that except for the handful of speed demons who may have known the tunes? What kind of community does that build? What kind of worship experience?

The thing is, the Sacred Harp is named thusly because all of the words are based in Biblical scripture. Shape note singing is fun, but it’s also kind of like being at church, and for a long time, it was the only place where I felt safe enough to be in the mental state of worship. No matter who you were or where you came from, if you wanted to sing with us, you could sing with us, judgment-free.

Maybe my father can experience that at the big singings because he is a shape note fanatic. He has audio files and CDs of recordings of songs, and listens to them to help learn them. He also practices at home, reading from the songbook and beating out the measures until he knows the tunes well enough to lead them.

I could do that, but frankly, I’d rather have that worshipful, musical experience with others than practicing alone. If that means I don’t do it very often, and on my own terms, then I guess that’s what I’ll have to do.

* This is the first line of Idumea, my father’s favorite tune.

2 thoughts on “and am I born to die?*”

  1. I understand, but, as a Sacred Harp singer myself, I do think it’s a shame that you shut yourself out from the larger singings. My own first experience with Sacred Harp was stumbling in on a group that also took the tunes at terrifying speed, but my response was quite different: I thought, “I’ve gotta LEARN this!” And the best way to learn is *not* to practice alone [though I’ve practiced a lot in the car, singing along with my MP3 player], but to go to singings and take the risk of joining in. Nobody, in my experience, has ever disapproved of me screwing up a tune [and I’ve screwed up any number of them]. All they really care about is that (a) you join in, and (b) don’t set conditions on your participation. That’s how you build community–by being as willing to join the community as the community is [really!] to join you.

  2. It is a shame that the tunes were led too quickly … I’m noticing that there is starting to be a return to slower singing, even in large conventions, although you’ll probably always find some new tunes sung at high speeds.

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