On the fourth Sunday and the Saturday before in September of 2012 I was able to be part of my first Sacred Harp convention—the Rocky Mountain Convention.
How do you compress two days of volume, of the high fierce notes that for me are so characteristic of this music, into a few paragraphs? Sacred Harp singing, I’ve learned, is one of those things that, in the ungrammatical phrase, “you hadda been there” to really get the full impact of. This Convention wasn’t an exception—no matter how high my expectations, it exceeded them. And I’m not sure that I can adequately put into words the impact the Convention had on me—I’m not sure anyone could.
Certain things stand out.
There’s the experience of leading. We all know just how important standing in the hollow square is to really hearing sacred harp singing. It sounds great from back in your section, whatever it may be. It sounds even better on the front bench. But the focus of all that sound isn’t the third row, or even the front bench—it’s the center of the square. There’s a reason leaders will often bring a novice up with them—once you’ve heard the music from that spot you can never be the same. Some of us who sing are religious and some aren’t. I am, and for me leading, with the exposure to that “original surround sound,” is a religious experience. Over the weekend I was able to lead four times, twice each day, and I worshipped my God as surely during those times as I ever have in church. And even if I weren’t at all religious, there’s still something about 40 voices all singing—and, being sacred harp singers, singing loudly—that transcends mere singing, and becomes something much more than the notes on the page and the methods of singing and leading.
There’s the experience of hearing. Two songs in particular struck me. One was “Clamanda” (p. 42). I’ve loved that one since I first heard it on disc two of Awake, My Soul. But to sit on the tenor at a convention, and actually be part of the driving beat, so reminiscent of an army marching into combat, is something else entirely. Hitting the accents in the chorus—”WELL ARMED with HELmet, SWORD, and SHIELD”—almost made the walls shake, and we were singing in a building with adobe walls two or three feet thick. At that point we had, as I like to put it, blown the roof off and were well on the way to blowing the walls out.
And the second is “Consecration” (p. 448t). This is one of those songs that there’s just not enough of. You want to keep singing it, and keep singing it, because it just lends itself to singing. I had planned to call it, but someone beat me to it, and led it almost exactly as I would have. This is another song with strong accents, accents that demand that you hit them, and hit them hard, producing a pounding beat that defies anyone to stop the singing. Especially in the second section, where the time switches to three over four, it’s easy to understand what Richard Ivey means in—I’m mentioning it again—Awake, My Soul. He says that when he’s singing it feels like the ground’s shaking under him, and it feels like the shaking will lift him off his feet with its power. And though I wanted to keep singing, when the leader finished, and we stopped, I was breathless from the beauty and joy of the music. I didn’t actually feel the ground shake—but something shook, and I’ll remember it for a long time.
And then there’s the memorial lesson. From years in church I’ve learned that “family” can mean more than just your relatives. And sacred harp singers are a family—and though that’s a cliché, it’s the truth. I don’t know whether they were saying it in 1844 when B. F. White first published The Sacred Harp, but if they weren’t, it can’t have been very long afterward when singers began seeing themselves that way. I had the honor and privilege of conducting this year’s memorial lesson, and to my surprise I found myself almost choking up as I began. I didn’t recognize any of the names on either list—but it didn’t matter. Those singers—whether deceased or shut in—are family, and without ever meeting them I missed them, and wished that they could have been with us to sing.
When I come to die, years from now as I hope, or tomorrow as it may be, I have no doubt that Sacred Harp music will be in my heart. I’ve listened to different kids of music for decades now. But though I haven’t even sung Sacred Harp two years yet, I’ve sung it. It’s all well and good to listen to CDs. It’s wonderful that I can watch DVDs of singings. But there is nothing in the world like singing sacred harp music. Our music, by its very nature, demands that you get involved; its sound is not merely an invitation, but an insistence on participation.
My voice is individual, just as were those voices around me in my section and in the other sections of the hollow square. And on certain notes my voice might have momentarily stood out distinct from the whole. But the reason I was there was not to sing by myself for others to admire. I was there to be part of the class, to lend my voice with its distinctive qualities to the entire class. And when I sang at the Convention, what I sang was more than just my voice—it was something far greater than any one person. All our voices together were something far greater than the sum of our individual voices.
And when I sang at the Convention, my soul awoke.