“Take My Staff and Travel On”: A Sacred Harp Journey

Have you ever wondered how many people sing Sacred Harp? Even though I have no idea what the exact number is, I am amazed by how many people around the world share the experience of this music. Each of these singers has his or her own unique story—every one has followed a different road toward Sacred Harp, arriving at the tradition from a different background and viewpoint.

Kama Dembińska and Justyna Orlikowska lead at the Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention, one of many stops on a month-long trip to Sacred Harp singings across two continents and six U.S. states. Photograph by Kelly Taylor.

We may come from different directions, but we are fortunate that our paths cross so often as we gather to sing. Sometimes we travel in the same direction—sometimes we head different ways. There are wide roads with many, busy lanes, and small, side roads. But every time that we cross paths, we make time to stop, rest, and sing. Sacred Harp travelers always sing! I love how contagious it is! And then when the singing is over, again we go our different ways …

This is a story about a few stops and crossings—recollections of a road followed by two Polish singers for whom Sacred Harp has become an important component of their lives. Our individual roads had crossed so many times that one day we decided to travel together on a thirty-day journey across two continents, meeting people in the Sacred Harp tradition everywhere we went. If you saw my friend Kama Dembińska and me at a singing this March, then you crossed paths with us during one of the stops on our big journey. We were so happy to meet all of you! If I haven’t met you yet, I take comfort knowing that there will be still many beautiful stories from other roads.

It is not easy to write about what we experienced during our month-long journey—there are just too many important memories. The first thing I wrote after I came back home was a short post on Facebook summing up our journey as a travel itinerary:

27.02.2013—Warszawa, PL > Cork, IRL > Shushan, NY > Bennington, VT > Northampton, MA > Old Chatham, NY > Amherst, MA > New York, NY > Englewood, NJ > Philadelphia, PA > Easton, PA > Bethlehem, PA > Carrollton, GA > Atlanta, GA > Warszawa, PL—27.03.2013 … so many great places and beautiful people to sing with! Thank you all for your wonderful care, moving moments, and fun! And for everything else!

That was all I could write immediately after I returned. I felt overwhelmed after such a crazy and unforgettable experience. Two countries and six U.S. states, places full of singing, laughing, love, friendship, beauty, power, lessons, experience, fulfillment, charm… And it wouldn’t have meant anywhere near as much without the wonderful, kind, and generous people who cared about us and helped in many ways before and during the trip! Thank you!

Our journey included many different occasions for singing. The biggest were the third Ireland Sacred Harp Convention in Cork, the fifteenth Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention in Northampton, and the fifty-second Georgia State Convention in Carrollton. There were many smaller singings, as well, but all were full of the same great spirit as the bigger ones.

P. Dan Brittain teaches a singing school the evening before the third Ireland Sacred Harp Convention. Photograph by Michael Walker.

Our first stop was Cork, Ireland, where the singing and fellowship began the Thursday before the convention weekend, and didn’t end until Monday. Cork’s Camden Palace hosts a weekly singing on Thursday night, a great opportunity to warm up our voices before the convention. A large group, including most of the travelers who were attending the convention, joined the Cork singers. The singing marked the first moments of welcoming, greetings, hugs, conversation, and laughter, with plenty of excitement thinking of how this is just the beginning of several wonderful days together. Sinéad Hanrahan, the chair of the convention, led the opening song, “Liverpool” (p. 37b in The Sacred Harp), and it was incredibly powerful. The energy and joy were almost visible! I was really crushed by the sound! Even though Ireland isn’t the warmest place it the world in March, it doesn’t matter, because you feel so much warmth from this fellowship.

In between singing opportunities, Friday was a good day for a little sightseeing in Cork and the surrounding area. On Friday evening, we attended a workshop led by P. Dan Brittain, who taught about the rudiments of music, discussing the major and minor scales, modes of time and beating time, types of songs, and accent. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of Sacred Harp etiquette and unwritten traditions. We concluded with a humorous singing exercise, the song “Call John” a difficult yet silly tune from the rudiments of the 1911 Original Sacred Harp, known as the “James book.”

Though spare, the new convention hall had been festooned by the Cork singers with posters, crocheted shape notes spelling out “3rd Ireland Sacred Harp Convention,” and other decorations. Photograph by Marcin Lewandowski, soundofphotography.com.

This year the convention was held in a different place than previous two, which were at an old University College Cork library, a beautiful, spacious room. This time it was in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral Hall, also very historic place. The hall was a bit smaller, but that gave it even better acoustics for Sacred Harp singing, which was the main purpose of the change. The Corkians did a great job making the place unforgettable. There were embroidered shape notes on the walls, posters, and candles with shape notes at the front directing us to the singing, and many other details which made the room a bit cozier. But most importantly, the sound was very satisfying.

Every year, our European singings enjoy more and more popularity. This time in Cork we had the largest contingent of American singers yet. Every time we meet new people, we have a chance to encounter new traditions, new songs, and even new books; after the Saturday singing, we had an official Shenandoah Harmony book launch and singing. It was exciting to sing from this collection, a mix of the familiar and the very new, and to see what an undertaking it was to create a songbook from scratch. Our Polish contingent led the song, “Freta,” composed by Allison Blake Steel when she was in Poland in 2009 teaching a singing school. Writing the song was beautiful gesture in and of itself, but the song is even more meaningful because it includes Polish verses. It was very moving to sing for the class in our native language. On Saturday night (frankly, every night), we socialized in the traditional Irish fashion—in pubs. Our evenings were full of people, Irish beers, laughter, and occasionally even some singing.

Thom Fahrbach, of Portland Oregon, gives the memorial lesson at the third Ireland Sacred Harp Convention.

Kama Dembińska leads the class at the convention in Cork. Photograph by Marcin Lewandowski, soundofphotography.com.

Sunday was a powerful contrast, rich in beautiful and significant words. The memorial lesson, led by Thom Fahrbach of Portland, Oregon, was an experience that I will never forget. It was actually the first memorial which I heard that actually took the form of a lesson. Thom was very interactive, asking questions, forcing us to think, and showing us many ways of understanding the concept of “Sabbath.” Thom demonstrated that our singings feature diversity of thoughts, believes, backgrounds, but also showed us that it’s important to realize when we see this crowd singing that despite our endless variety, we are all one together, and we all “belong to this band.” As a complement to the memorial lesson, Harald Grundner from Bremen, Germany, gave the closing prayer on Sunday, presenting an honest and beautiful account of his experiences with and motivations for singing Sacred Harp, how this has affected his understanding of life, values, and faith, and led him to a better understanding of what many kinds of people take from this music, including those that are not necessarily religious. And yet still, we sing religious music together. Tolerance and understanding are central to our tradition. As we recognize the beauty in the variety of life paths that intersect with our own, we see that in spite of all our differences, this music and the values that it represents enrich us all in so many different ways.

After all these wonderful events in Ireland, we bade Europe farewell and prepared to continue our trip across the ocean. We said goodbye to our Polish friends who couldn’t come with us, but we took with us loads of hugs, kisses, and greetings for our American friends on behalf of the Polish singers. Going to the Western Massachusetts convention was actually a sort of homecoming for us. Several New England singers helped start a tradition of Sacred Harp singing in Poland. The last time we were there was three years ago, on our very first trip to the United States, and our very first Sacred Harp convention, when six Polish girls and a monk came to the Northeast. So being here again, even as a contingent of two, was a meaningful experience for us.

The singing at Northampton is a place where many singers’ paths cross. Cora Wareh leads the class. Photograph by Kelly Taylor.

The singing at Northampton is a big singing where many singers’ paths cross. This time around, the European contingent included two Irish girls, two Polish girls, and one German girl. It was funny to see each other just a week after the Cork convention, but in different country and even a different continent. My experience there three years ago of a massive crowd that sounded like one powerful voice still echoed in my mind. This time was equally satisfying. I especially enjoyed the opportunity to switch between sections, since in Northampton there are plenty of singers on every part. Even if you choose a difficult or seldom used song, it is always well sung, since there are so many good singers all around the square. A particularly powerful song this time was “The Ark” (p. 506), led by Becky Wright, Rachel Hall, and Nora Miller. The air was so thick with sound it seemed to embrace me. And one of my favorites, “The Child of Grace” (p. 77t), led by Cheri Hardy, was alive with the feeling of encompassing happiness and fellowship. It was my own personal pleasure to lead “Newburgh” (p. 182), with Tim Eriksen. It was also very exciting to see how many children led in Northampton on both days. One song was also led by group of students from Bennington College where Allison Blake Steel, Dan Hertzler, and Ben Bath are leading a weekly Sacred Harp singing school (before his move to Atlanta, Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg led these sessions). It shows that this tradition is continuing to grow, reaching new generations.

Nora Miller, Becky Wright, and Rachel Hall lead “The Ark” (p. 506) at the Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention. Photograph by Kelly Taylor.

The Saturday social is traditionally held at the home of John and Greta Holbrook. Thanks to their great hospitality we had a wonderful party, occupying their entire house and the barn with a variety of musical and social activities; you could sing more from the Sacred Harp, Shenandoah Harmony, or Lloyd’s Hymnal. You could listen to a band playing traditional melodies, including ballads from New England and other regions. Or, you could even train your brain by playing shape note “SET,” a card game invented by Lauren Bock. If you preferred, you could also just rest, eat, and talk with friends.

After two weeks, I had already had so many amazing experiences, and the beginning of my journey seemed like it was ages ago. I was chatting one day with a friend whom I met in Ireland: “I feel like Ireland was ages ago!” He replied, “Ha. It was just two weeks ago that we sat next to each other in the treble section at Camden Palace.” It seemed crazy, but I realized that he was right. It’s a funny thing how after a month of absence, the people who you left at home either forget about you or start getting concerned, asking questions like, “So really! WHEN are you coming back?” or even “ARE you coming back?!” At some point I realized that I felt completely outside of time. As I contemplated my journey and all its richness, I had an overwhelming and thrilling feeling that wherever we go, people care about us. Even on a foreign continent, we found our family, this great band all around us.

Justyna Orlikowska leads at the Georgia State Convention. Photograph by Matt Hinton.

Our last big stop was the fifty-second session of the Georgia State Convention in Carrollton. It was a smaller singing than the one in Northampton, but full of great voices. It was less formal and more familiar and intimate. It was possible to talk with practically everyone in attendance. Our hosts were cordial and happy to entertain travelers. They showed us their hospitality and caring in many ways, reminding me once again of what a great community we are.

Adding to all of this was the unique feeling of singing somewhere in the southern U.S., touching this tradition close to its heart, a sense that filled me with such joy that at the beginning of the first session on Saturday as I sat and listened to the sound, I laughed to myself just to realize that we were truly here. Attending the Georgia State Convention was also a great opportunity to meet life-long singers and others who have contributed so much to the tradition of Sacred Harp, people like Hugh McGraw, Charlene Wallace, Reba Dell Windom, Buell Cobb, and so many others. It was also remarkable to meet people who were related to the composers of some of the best-loved Sacred Harp songs—or even the composers themselves. It is also wonderful to experience an unwritten part of the tradition that you have to encounter in person to understand; the things you can learn only by singing with others. For example, I enjoyed singing “Weeping Mary” (p. 408) and hearing how at the end of the song when each part takes turn singing the final phase, the altos in Georgia stayed silent until their part came in—different from what I had heard at singings in Alabama where the altos had held their note until their entrance. It would be a shame not to mention the dinner on the grounds, which was extraordinary, delicious, and overwhelming—vegetables, salads, meats, and desserts… my taste buds were in delight. After the convention, we went to the Sacred Harp museum at the Sacred Harp Publishing Company headquarters in Carrollton. Here, beautiful memories are saved in photos, articles, videos, books, and recordings. I recommend that everyone go there. You will feel even closer to our wonderful Sacred Harp heritage.

Front bench tenors at the Georgia State Convention. Photograph by Robert Chambless.

On our entire thirty-day trip, we only had two days without any singing! I am counting conventions, regular weekly or monthly singings, workshops, meetings at someone’s house, singing in the car, or whatever other surprising places that turned out to be perfect for singing. Just two days, with our twenty-eight other days beautifully accented with the sounds of music. And I still can’t believe it! The closest I can come to expressing my feelings is to quote the text from “River of Jordan” (from The Social Harp): “My soul is happy while I sing, happy, oh happy, I feel that I am on the wing…”

Many people, many paths, and many singings. I am so moved by the often unexpected but always fulfilling crossings that I experienced. I was also grateful when people from the U.S. and elsewhere who had come to sing in Europe were encouraging others to visit and sing with us back home. You are all invited to join our road, maybe at the second Poland Sacred Harp Convention in September!

It is beautiful when we can say that we like singing with each other, but maybe it’s even better when we can say that we simply cherish the time that we have spent with each other. We met so many wonderful people during this trip about whom we can say both things without hesitation. What could be more precious?

About Justyna Orlikowska

Justyna Orlikowska began singing Sacred Harp in 2008 and has traveled since to singings across Europe and the United States. She was co-chair of the first Poland Sacred Harp Singing Convention and is chairlady of the second convention. She lives in Warsaw.
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3 Responses to “Take My Staff and Travel On”: A Sacred Harp Journey

  1. Cath Ingham says:

    What a brilliant account and so true. Sadly I won’t see you in Warsaw this time but will make sure I do next year. See you at the UK Convention in September I hope.

  2. Zilpha K. Cornett says:

    Oh, Justyna! You are so gracious. I loved reading about the journey you and Kama took. I just wish everyone knew what wonderful hostesses the two of you were to all of us visiting in Poland in September 2012.

    Please visit America again whenever you can.

  3. Justyna, that was just beautiful and thoughtful and heartfelt. Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us! Dzie kuje!! Colleen 🙂 xo

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