The question is: How did Sacred Harp singing find its way to Australia? Did Australians visiting the United States come across Sacred Harp singing and start a group on their return home? Did an Australian musician come across a recording, feel the power therein, and gather his friends together to sing this music themselves? Did the tradition, having taken root in England, then spread out to the colonies, like custard tarts or the Dave Clark 5? The answer is all of the above, and these various paths converged in Sydney on October 6, 2012 for the first Australian All Day Singing.
About ten years ago Melbournites Natalie Sims and Shawn Whelan spent a period of time living and studying in the United States. Towards the end of their stay they encountered Sacred Harp singing in New England and loved what they heard, particularly at the end of their trip when they attended the Young People’s Convention in Leyden, Massachusetts. When they arrived back in Australia, as Natalie puts it, “There was no group, so we had no choice but to start one if we ever wanted to sing shape-note music again. And we did!” They purchased books and recordings and established a small singing in Melbourne, which over the years has welcomed several overseas visitors, including me. One of their earliest visitors was the late Bob Meek who told them that if they were to organize a big singing then people would come. At the singing on October 6 we remembered Bob for his prescience.
Much more recently, Sydney bluegrass musician James Daley, who has a strong interest in American traditional music, came across some older field recordings of Sacred Harp music, which intrigued him so much that he started gathering his friends to sing.
Enter the ebullient Eimear Cradock, recently arrived in Sydney from Ireland. Eimear had started singing Sacred Harp in Cork, where she had attended the first convention there in March of 2011. The experience of meeting and singing with the singers from all over Europe and the United States touched something in her, and as she puts it, “From then on the experience of this music became richer with every singing/meeting/roadtrip/shape-note singing adventure, to the point where I found myself on the other side of the world, book in hand, not knowing if I would find anyone who sang this beautiful music here.”
Eimear soon found Natalie and Shawn, who put her in touch with James, and because of her experience at the convention in Cork she was determined to gather all the singers in Australia together, to introduce the newer singers in Sydney to the joys and possibilities of the music. In her grand passion and enthusiasm, she set the organizational wheels in motion and less than a year later there we all were, on a beautiful October Saturday in a fine Sydney suburb, singing at Australia’s very first all-day singing.
I had been to Australia before. I love the country, and I have many friends who live there. Besides this, my company has branches in Brisbane and Melbourne where some of my colleagues work, colleagues whom I’ve long wanted to meet face-to-face. I’ve been saving for and planning another trip to Australia for several years. When I saw that this singing was going to happen, I knew this was my perfect opportunity.
And oh, the singing was going to be in Sydney! Flights from the United States tend to arrive in Sydney at dawn, and as you approach Botany Bay you can look out of the airplane window and see the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House, right at Circular Quay in the heart of the city. This is a view you have probably seen many times in pictures or on film, but to realize that this is the real thing sets your heart beating with excitement. Sydney Harbour is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Sydney itself is a wonderful city, architecturally rich, bustling and cozy both. It is somehow familiar yet somehow strange, which makes for a feeling that you have indeed landed in Oz.
I arrived a day early for the singing, during which I just relaxed as I walked around this city I love. I sat at Sydney Harbour and gazed at the water, considering the rich history of that very spot. I went to dinner with my local hosts, friends I met during my first trip to Australia, and yes there was kangaroo steak on the menu so of course I had to order it. It was delicious.
On day two in the land down under I was ready for the singing. I took a bus to the inner suburb of Annandale, an area that was quite grand during Victorian times and still offers some wonderful walking on an early spring October day, with the trees coming into bloom. I was very far indeed from the rural U.S. South, where I have often traveled to sing, but in its own way it was as sweet and beautiful as you could want.
The singing was held in a former church building that is now a community center. I arrived, and there was Eimear, welcoming all, figuring everything out, excited at the culmination of a lot of work and planning. Visitors from Melbourne came early, with boxes of loaner books and willing arms to help set everything up. There were visitors from Canberra, and even New Zealand. I, myself, was on edge with excitement. I was so very very far from home—farther from home than I’ve been when I’ve gone to Alabama or Georgia or even England, far from my home and even farther from the home of this music you might say—but here we were, putting together a hollow square.
I know you want to hear about the all-day singing itself, which was the purpose of the visit and the event to which all of this leads. And there are some things I can tell you. I can tell you that there were over fifty-two singers from six countries present. I can tell you that we sang fifty-two songs. I can tell you that the singing was organized as a traditional singing, with dinner on the grounds and a memorial lesson. But on the whole, once you start singing you start singing, and you are lost in that world and it is a singing like any other. There is a universe in a day, a power in each lesson. The specifics merge not just into the day itself, but into all of the singings you ever attended. When you consider that I was in Australia, that most of the singers were relatively if not completely new, that’s saying something.
There were some differences from the conventions I’ve attended in the United States, however. In particular, since most of the singers were new, they wanted to go through the shapes several times, to get the songs down before launching into them. But everybody was eager to sing, to sing the songs right. This may not have been strictly traditional, for a convention, but it was absolutely in service to the ultimate goal of why we are gathering to sing. I particularly loved the fact that the people wanted to sing the shapes—they understood their importance and significance. We took more time than is standard to make sure we could all participate as much as possible. At the core the singers in Australia seemed to appreciate everything that many of us love about this music and tradition. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is what makes for a good singing. Because this was a good singing. There were moments of joy, and feelings of community, and a sense of a group of people from around the country of Australia getting together to share time with each other through this music.
The day passed too fast to catch everything and yet slow enough to enjoy everything. We sang all day, and we closed with the “Parting Hand” (p. 62). Could that be it? Not quite. Many of us went up the road to have some refreshments together, to talk with each other a bit more. And we were all invited next door that evening for the Sydney Bluegrass & Old Time Music Get-together.
This was not, technically, a two-day singing, but the next day happened to be the regular time block for the Sydney singing, so all who could stay in town returned to sing again, in a smaller group and a more intimate square. It was a sweet, comfortable time, a little bit less formal and more relaxed than Saturday but people still wanted to sing as much as possible. The general consensus among those who could come for this extra singing was that it was even nicer and more powerful than the previous day’s singing.
James Daley, the local musician who had started the Sydney singing, plays in a bluegrass/old-timey band, along with his brother Ben, and their band just happened to be playing in a “hotel” (which we could call a pub or bar) just up the road. At the singing’s end those of us who did not have to catch planes went over to have a beer and watch them (they were great!) and we were all bursting with pleasure and goodwill after our weekend singing with each other. Eventually we lost a few more people to travel and those of us remaining went to the Thai restaurant next door to end our weekend with a fine meal.
It wasn’t until the following morning, when I was thinking about that most delightful of afternoons, that it hit me hard that until that weekend I hadn’t known a single one of the people I was with at the pub and restaurant. I thought no, that couldn’t be. Because honestly, it was like a happy reunion with old friends. It was, for me, a time of perfection.
Sacred Harp singing is an amazing way to connect deliciously with people, to share a day of music and passion, singing on to exhaustion, even with brand new friends who live on the other side of the world. There are now many more people in my life. They are just beginning to develop a Sacred Harp singing community in Australia, most of the singers are just beginning to explore the book, but they already feel and enjoy this music and this tradition as much as those of us who have been singing for decades.
I was honored and amazed to be part of the first all-day Sacred Harp singing in Australia. I hope anybody who can will consider making the trip of a lifetime, around the world and across the equator, to join the Australian singers for this wonderful event when it happens again.
Editor’s Note: Natalie Sims writes that “our next Australian All-Day Singing will be in Melbourne on July 13, 2013, at the Brunswick Uniting Church’s Bluestone Hall.” Make your plans to attend!