The Seventeenth Annual United Kingdom Sacred Harp Convention,
Four of us squeeze into a tiny car and set off from Norwich, cradling our precious food dishes in our laps. Stuck in traffic, the windows are wound down and we fill the September air with our croaky voices; no one in the queuing cars around us is left in any doubt that we’re “Bound for Canaan.”
So began more than a week of Sacred Harp singing in September.
We arrived at the hotel near the village of Winnersh, Berkshire on Friday afternoon, where over drinks and food we greeted old friends and visiting singers from overseas.
The next morning we made our various ways to the convention venue, Winnersh Community Centre Hall, a rather nondescript but large village hall, and one that suited its purpose. After teas, coffees, biscuits and plenty of hugs, it was high time we got down to some singing. And what singing! A record turnout for any UK Convention, with over 140 singers registered, including singers from the United States, Ireland, Poland, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Though the acoustics were nothing special, the number of singers and the quality of the singing more than made up for it, and few could deny that the sound was impressive. A special tradition of the UK Convention was its Celebrations Lesson. This counterpart the memorial lesson, held on Saturday, created a pleasant positive space to reflect on those things in life we should feel grateful for, and wish to congratulate one another on. At lunchtime we were well supplied (as always, perhaps too well supplied!) with a spread of delicious food, and the weather was fine enough to eat outside in the sunshine.
After the singing on Saturday, those of us who felt up for more stayed on to sing from alternative sources, using a booklet put together by Michael Walker. This booklet included several new compositions and a selection from the then forthcoming Shenandoah Harmony.
In the evening, after supper, many of us returned to the Convention venue where we were treated to an informal recital by two fellow Sacred Harp singers. Áine Uí Cheallaigh sang haunting Irish ballads, interspersed with jaunty hornpipes, chorus songs and ditties from English folksinger and concertina player Dave Townsend (the line-up was to have included Cath and Phil Tyler, but sadly they could not make it due to ill health).
Singing continued late into the night, which may have contributed to Sunday’s singing sounding a little subdued at first, but we soon warmed up to sound just as good as we had on Saturday.
Sunday’s memorial lesson was one that will stick in my mind for some time. Mike Hinton read some beautiful and evocative lines written by his aunt, Sacred Harp composer Ruth Denson Edwards:
You know, when death comes to each old and well loved friend, we die a little too. Something goes out of us—something that’s missing to the end of our lives. Somehow though the long days pass on into line—the Loom of Life goes on and on weaving a beautiful pattern even though one, two, or three lovely strands are gone.
All in all, it was a fantastic weekend, and thanks are due to the organizers, Steve Fletcher, Michael Walker, Martin Williams, and John Baldini in the kitchen, aided by an army of volunteers.
We are already looking forward to the eighteenth UK Sacred Harp Convention, which will be held in Durham (the most northerly location yet), at Framwellgate School, September 14–15, 2013. If the recent increase in singings across the country is anything to go by, next year should be bigger and louder still!
Camp Fasola Europe, September 17–21
In the spring, when I first considered attending Europe’s first ever Camp Fasola, it seemed like a distant fantasy, and I had dismissed it as being too expensive. But a large part of its success was due to a few very generous souls who donated funds, both by official and informal means, to enable many singers (including myself) to help cover the cost of attending. We are privileged to be a part of such a kind-hearted, generous community.
I did not know what to expect of Camp, but I was very excited by the prospect of spending several days singing and learning. Most of the Camp participants had attended the UK Convention, and traveled together to Poland. Arriving at the airport on Monday morning, we were greeted by a bright pink Wizz Air plane to Gdansk. Polish singer Kuba Choinski met us with a coach to take us to the Camp venue. The journey took us through the picturesque Kashubian hills, villages, forests, and lakes to the town of Chmielno. The venue, Wichrowe Wzgórze (translated as “Wuthering Heights”), was far beyond what we were expecting for accommodation—it felt almost like a luxury hotel, with its idyllic location overlooking Lake Kłodno. There was time for a few of us to run down for a quick (and chilly) dip in the lake before Camp got underway.
The food at Camp was very good, mainly consisting of traditional regional Polish dishes (though at first there were a few teething problems with the European comprehension of the term “vegetarian”).
Lessons at Camp center on approaching singing from The Sacred Harp from the beginning—literally, “the Rudiments.” With basic and advanced classes, we looked at the fundamentals of the music, through the departments of time, tune and accent—including how to beat time, hints and exercises for learning the shape-note syllables, choosing the right key for a song, how to convey your intentions when leading, and striving for a good emphatic driving accent—all demonstrated practically through singing.
It’s difficult to highlight any specific favorite moments at Camp, as it was all excellent. One of the lessons I enjoyed a lot was “The Best of The Ungreatest Hits.” We sang songs from the bottom 20—that is, the pieces that have been least used, according to the minutes; I have never heard “The Bride’s Farewell” (p. 359) sounding so good! A few of us got together for a “Team Tunesmith” exercise: after choosing a text to set, each participant wrote a tenor part, then passed it on to the next person, who wrote the bass, and so on again to the treble and alto parts, so that in the end we had four communally-composed songs. The “Keying Music” lesson was also very interesting, as it is something I am working on at the moment in the singings in Norwich. It was also great fun (though tiring!) to sing as many anthems and odes in one lesson as we could.
Some of our Thursday evening singing was recorded by Camp participant and freelance journalist Kate Mossman for a short broadcast on the BBC World Service. Kate also interviewed some of us for the program and published two articles about Sacred Harp featuring Camp Fasola Europe, one in The Times (subscription required) and another more recently in Songlines world music magazine.
For anyone who might think they couldn’t possibly cope with a whole week of singing—well, there were plenty of things to do that didn’t (necessarily) involve singing (having said that, I did almost lose my voice during the week). We could go boating and swimming in the lake, try our hand at making some traditional Kashubian pottery, ride in a haycart, and try Nordic walking or cycling. In addition, some of the electives were opportunities to rest tired voices, such as learning about arranging at a convention, or discussing how to prepare suitable food for a convention—we even made a dessert! We also had a chance to see some traditional Kashubian folk dancing and singing, and enjoyed an evening recital by Camp instructor Tim Eriksen.
I think it is very important for anyone who loves and regularly sings the music of The Sacred Harp to experience Camp Fasola. This is the closest thing today to the singing schools which kept the Sacred Harp singing tradition alive during the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. Not only will you learn an awful lot, but you will have a lot of fun doing so, and return home having made lots of new friends.
Camp is not intended just for new and young singers, and this was really evident in Poland. A few of us had been singing for a matter of weeks, others for twenty years; some for about three years, and others since childhood. Campers embraced the wide range of ages and backgrounds that are a key part of what defines the Sacred Harp community.
Our thanks must go not only to the Polish Sacred Harp singers who helped organize Camp, but to all the teachers/leaders, who gave us the benefit of their wisdom, humor, and experience. And of course to all the participants—I am proud to call you my friends, and hope that we will sing again as soon as possible!
First Poland Sacred Harp Convention, September 22–23
On Friday, most of us set off by coach from Chmielno to Warsaw. The long journey soon turned into a traveling Sacred Harp convention (complete with officers and minutes), though there was rather less singing than stopping for lunch and catching up on sleep.
When we arrived, we were taken to our various hosts dotted around Warsaw. The next morning I was among the first to get to the venue, a hall in the Geography Department of Warsaw University, so amidst setting up I took the opportunity to write a welcome message on the blackboards. More hugs for visiting singers, and the singing got underway. The room was a good size with a wooden floor, though perhaps the high ceiling swallowed up some of the sound, making us work harder. And even though many of us were far from being in good voice after singing all week, I think it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say atmosphere was electric. To have over 120 people—American, British, Irish, Polish and German—all singing together from The Sacred Harp is something that would have been unimaginable even five years ago.
The evening social events were also very special. We walked through Warsaw’s romantic Old Town to a small community hall to hear a traditional Polish female singing group, and then across the city to the old Krasiński Library, a building deserted after the war, but which has now been taken over by artists and musicians who regularly hold concerts and events there. Some really excellent Polish folk musicians were playing, and we soon started dancing around in the candlelight. The mysterious, gloomy ambience and the cathedral-like acoustics meant that once the dancing was over we soon had our books out (despite the limited visibility) and were singing our hearts out.
UK singer Colin Higgins took some great videos of both the Poland and UK Conventions, which can be seen on Youtube. As the first ever Sacred Harp convention in mainland Europe, the Poland Convention was a resounding success. Thanks must go to the Poland Sacred Harp singers, Kuba Choinski, Justyna Orlikowska, Bogna Różyczka, Jacek Borkowicz, Gosia Perycz, and many more for organizing such a fantastic convention.