A Long Time Traveling: A Sacred Harp Tour to the UK Convention, Camp Fasola Europe, and the Poland Convention

A statue at the Chmielno, Poland, venue for Camp Fasola Europe was ready to sing. All he needed was a copy of The Sacred Harp. Photograph by Kathy Williams.

A statue at the Chmielno, Poland, venue for Camp Fasola Europe was ready to sing. All he needed was a copy of The Sacred Harp. Photograph by Kathy Williams.

Fourteen eager travelers met at the Atlanta Airport on Thursday, September 18, 2014, to begin a thirteen-day adventure that included the nineteenth annual UK Sacred Harp Convention, the second Camp Fasola Europe, and the third annual Poland Sacred Harp Convention. The travelers included David and Karen Ivey, trip hosts and camp instructors from Huntsville, Alabama, and camp instructors Jesse P. Karlsberg from Atlanta, Georgia, Bridgett Kennedy and Buell Cobb from Birmingham, Alabama, and Dan Brittain, from Harrison, Arkansas. Our group was rounded out with lovers of Sacred Harp (and travel) from Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and beyond: Gail Doss from Nashville, Tennessee; Eddie Mash from Knoxville, Tennessee; Linda Thomas from Oneonta, Alabama; me (Kathy Williams), from Cullman, Alabama; Jo Dell Albi from New Lenox, Illinois; Susan Cherones from Cloudland, Georgia, and Henagar, Alabama; and Gill and Pam Minor from Wilmington, North Carolina. An interesting thing about that flight is that we flew right over the British Isles to a layover in Frankfurt, Germany, then hopped right back west to Manchester. Our layover in Frankfurt was long enough to have a wonderful breakfast together before meeting our connecting flight.

The Sacred Harp tour group in Warsaw, Poland. Photograph by Kathy Williams.

The Sacred Harp tour group in Warsaw, Poland. Photograph by Kathy Williams.

Upon our arrival in Manchester on Friday morning, we met our first glitch: Linda Thomas’s luggage didn’t arrive! After the first jolt of panic, the loss was reported, and the luggage was found to still be in Atlanta. Given the time difference, we hoped it would be put on a flight from Atlanta that day, and that it would arrive soon! We met our coach outside the airport and traveled about an hour to Sheffield in South Yorkshire, where we checked into our hotel and had the rest of the day to explore, rest, shop, and find restaurants.

An astonishing crowd gathered for the UK Convention, September 20, 2015. Photograph by Jesse P. Karlsberg.

An astonishing crowd gathered for the UK Convention, September 20, 2015. Photograph by Jesse P. Karlsberg.

Early Saturday morning, after a full English breakfast at our hotel, we made our way to the singing venue, where an astonishing crowd was gathering! What followed was a wonderful day of singing, food, fellowship, and fun. Among the most energetic and heartfelt tunes we sang were some of the slower plain tunes in the first hundred pages of our tunebook. It was a wonderful day of reunion, meeting new singers, and bringing our hearts together to sing.

When we returned to our hotel that afternoon, Linda’s mysteriously delayed luggage had arrived (celebration time!). The social that followed on Saturday night was highlighted by fish and chips dinners we had ordered during the day, followed by volunteer entertainment by singers who displayed their musical talents in genres outside of Sacred Harp. One memorable performance was Steven Levine’s rendition of an Australian song called “Bill and the Bear,” which recounts the true story of a Glaswegian emigrant to Australia, William Sinclair. Bill became famous for defeating a bear when a circus visited nearby, hence six verses and the chorus after each:

And were you there in the cold night air
when William Sinclair he fought the bear?
Were you there to see William Sinclair
When he wrestled the bear to the ground?

Sunday’s singing was just as robust and memorable as Saturday’s, and as always on the final day of a convention, poignant and bittersweet. Some memories of that day: beautiful Memorial Lesson, amazing lunch, an array of exotic cheeses, sweet goodbyes, the Parting Hand, promises to sing together again soon, and the common language of Sacred Harp music binding us together.

Family pottery designs on tile. Photograph by Kathy Williams.

Family pottery designs on tile. Photograph by Kathy Williams.

Monday brought an early flight from Manchester to Gdansk, Poland, where we were met by our guide and coach for the hour’s drive to Chmielno for the official beginning of Camp Fasola Europe. After checking in, receiving our black, white, and orange tee shirts and room assignments, we had time to do some visiting in the town of Chmielno. My favorite stop of that afternoon was at a local family pottery business, which has been operated by the same family for several generations. They have a series of designs for their work, which no one else is permitted to use. We had a tour of the building, a demonstration of the potter’s wheel, the painting and glazing, and ended in a small showroom where it was not possible to leave without buying some beautiful mugs. It is also impossible not to describe this picturesque area of Poland, with high, rolling hills and beautiful lakes. The resort in Chmielno is in a lovely setting on the shore of one of those lakes. The buildings and grounds are gorgeous, one of the buildings sporting a thatched roof.

A thatched-roof building at Wichrowe Wzgórze in Chmielno, site of Camp Fasola Europe. Photograph by Kathy Williams.

A thatched-roof building at Wichrowe Wzgórze in Chmielno, Poland, the site of Camp Fasola Europe.
Photograph by Kathy Williams.

The rest of the week was filled with a flurry of classes, singing, visiting, teaching, learning, and helping each other. Campers were divided into groups, with each group responsible for camp duties for a day: taking notes in classes, making sure chairs were set up and put away, taking charge of the one-hour singing each evening after dinner. The first night’s singing, after many of us had been singing all weekend, was a bit ragged around the edges. But we improved each night, after also singing in most of our classes. There was a delightful mix of classes from which to choose, from basic to advanced rudiments, leading, organizing conventions, arranging committee, memoirs of the Densons and Creels by Buell Cobb, and readings by Buell from his own book of Sacred Harp memories. He’s an amazing storyteller! The instructors included David and Karen Ivey, Jesse P. Karlsberg, Chris Brown, Dan Brittain, Bridgett Kennedy, and Buell Cobb.

One of my favorite and most touching memories was the Memorial Lesson, following the class taught by Bridgett Kennedy. Bridgett had spent hours on her computer writing and rewriting what she wanted to say to introduce the lesson. Somehow, the next day when she went to review her notes, they were gone; even the backups she had made sure to perform had disappeared into the ether! As she said, God had a plan for that lesson, and she was forced to speak directly from her heart. She did so eloquently, tears streaming as she shared her own experiences of loss, leading into a tender and meaningful memorial lesson.

American and English singers enjoy delicious Polish food at Camp Fasola Europe. Photograph by Linda Thomas.

American and English singers enjoy delicious Polish food at Camp Fasola Europe. Photograph by Linda Thomas.

Meals at camp were quite a memorable delight of Polish dishes. Breakfast and supper were buffets with breads, cheeses, meats, vegetables, and fruits. There was a selection of teas and instant coffee as well. Thanks to Dan Brittain for discovering a hidden treasure in the kitchen: thick, sludgy brewed coffee one had to know to ask for! The large meal was served at lunch time, beginning with a soup course served family style on the table. Our plentiful plates were then served by the staff dressed in local traditional costumes. One of the most interesting dishes I remember was dill pickle soup! Of course there were pierogies of different sorts as well, savory and sweet. One of our lunchtime desserts was punchbowl cake prepared in Karen Ivey’s “dinner on the ground” class using ingredients from the local market—the art of improvisation!

Kashubian musicians on the clarinet, accordion, and a percussion instrument called the "devil's violin." Photograph by Linda Thomas.

Kashubian musicians on the clarinet, accordion, and a percussion instrument called the “devil’s violin.”
Photograph by Linda Thomas.

A highlight of our week was an amazing performance of Kashubian folk music and dance, the dancers dressed in colorful Kashubian costumes. The performance was part dance, part history lesson, part comedy routine. We learned that the people in that region of Poland had been severely persecuted during the Communist regime, not allowed to speak their language or teach it to their children. Of course, they devised ways around that, and their culture and language survived. The music was provided by three instruments, clarinet, accordion, and a percussion instrument wielded by the leader of the group. It consisted of a wooden pole about as tall as its player, on which was a box at about knee level, which was hit with a drumstick he held in his right hand. At the top was (his description) a devil’s face modeled after his mother-in-law, with a hat on its head with a rim he used like a cymbal. So, he hit the pole on the floor, struck the box and the hat rim with his drumstick, and also rattled attachments that made a sound like a tambourine. At one point, the Kashubian leader chided a member of our group who was sitting on the front row, “the professor,” as he called him, for napping during their performance, causing an explosion of laughter. It was quite an entertaining evening!

The last night’s singing at Camp Fasola was extraordinary, a truly wonderful singing, showing the incredible growth experienced by the group during the week. The class, which brought together people from eleven countries, was probably among the most diverse ever to sing from The Sacred Harp, but in just a few days our voices had come together! That night sixty campers from those eleven countries led in that hollow square. It’s exciting to think of all the great work those campers were poised to do as they fanned out from our home for the week in northern Poland to the corners of the globe, multiplying the joy, comfort, spirit, and fellowship that we experienced together.

Our "coach," with luggage trailer, for the journey from Chmielno to Warsaw. Photograph by Linda Thomas.

Our “coach,” with luggage trailer, for the journey from Chmielno to Warsaw. Photograph by Linda Thomas.

Our group of fourteen left early on Friday morning for the long drive to Warsaw, with a side trip to the resort village of Swieta Lipka, known for the Pilgrimage Church of Our Dear Lady of Swieta Lipka. Our “coach” for the day was so small that it had no room for our luggage, so they attached a luggage trailer on the back. We had one especially nervous moment when the driver stopped, got out to check the trailer, then proceeded to drive. Were they afraid we had lost the whole thing? It was a bit spooky. The drive across the countryside was beautiful, the rolling hills, farmhouses with flower boxes in every window, forests of birch trees, just breathtaking views. On the roofs of many houses and the tops of power poles were huge nests that our guide identified as stork nests—the storks had already migrated to Africa for the winter.

Pilgrimage Church of Our Dear Lady of Swieta Lipka. Photograph by Linda Thomas.

Pilgrimage Church of Our Dear Lady of Swieta Lipka.
Photograph by Linda Thomas.

We arrived in Swieta Lipka at lunchtime, where we had reservations at a small, traditional restaurant. We each had variations of pierogis (some with meat, some with vegetables), stuffed potatoes, and salads (more like slaw in the United States). And of course, there were shared bites to taste what everyone had ordered. We’re an adventurous lot! After lunch, we visited the Pilgrimage Church of Our Dear Lady of Swieta Lipka, one of the most important examples of Baroque architecture in Poland. We were there in time for a concert on the pipe organ, built in 1791. We were told it has 2,235 pipes. It is built on the entire west wall and is richly decorated in Baroque style. On the towers are placed sculptures depicting angels playing different instruments. These figures, together with stars and bells, are set in motion in time with the playing of the instrument. It was fascinating to watch the movement as the organist played!

Rafał Sulima’s “Polonaise” on the Swieta Lipka organ.

After having time to shop in Swieta Lipka, we resumed our journey to Warsaw. Our guide was interested in our Sacred Harp story, asked many questions, and we sang for her. She was visibly moved and accepted our invitation to come to the convention in Warsaw. She came on Sunday and stood in the square with tears in her eyes! What an influence we can have as we travel and share our music and our stories!

Buell Cobb leading at the Poland Convention, September 27, 2015. Photograph by Linda Thomas.

Buell Cobb leading at the Poland Convention, September 27, 2015. Photograph by Linda Thomas.

The Third Poland Convention began on Saturday, September 27, and was held in a stunning room with art deco touches, stylized light fixtures touched with gold edging. It proved to be a marvelous singing room as well. The class was an entirely different mix than the previous week’s singers, with some having to return home after camp, and others joining us for the first time. It was an outstanding group nevertheless! The amazing efforts by the Polish singers in hosting their third convention are to be commended. It had to be a colossal undertaking! From the venue to the food (which was a mouthwatering array of Polish delicacies) to the Memorial Lesson to the bittersweet Parting Hand—it was a sensational convention!

This story cannot be told without weaving in the creeping upper-respiratory illness (the dreaded lurgy) that began to take us one by one as the days progressed. It began at camp, insinuated its presence by slyly felling one after the other of my fellow campers. By the time we arrived stateside, Linda Thomas and I were the only ones of our group who had not fallen ill. I understand some of our UK friends also came down with it after they arrived home. It was an adventure to find out every morning which of us was still standing!

Wilanów Palace Art Museum, Warsaw. Photograph by Linda Thomas.

Wilanów Palace Art Museum, Warsaw. Photograph by Linda Thomas.

On Monday, September 29, we had an all-day tour of Warsaw, with another wonderful tour guide. Warsaw is almost a new city since the end of World War II, when it was destroyed, leveled by the Nazis. A few elegant residences remain because they were used by the Nazi regime during that war. One such building is the Wilanów Palace Art Museum, a Baroque royal residence and testimony to Poland’s past splendor. Other sites included the moving monument to the Holocaust near the site of the old Jewish Quarter, and the museum there, which has opened but is not fully operational yet. We finished our day with free time in the Old Town Market for shopping and visiting.

Food must be mentioned yet again! Our hotel restaurant served a version of goulash which was very much like a beef and vegetable soup, served in a soup bowl and accompanied with crusty rolls and bread. Our lunch restaurant on Monday served a very thick goulash on a plate with kasha, a cooked grain served like rice as a side dish. I’m sure there are many more versions we could have sampled if we had the time!

The flight home on a LOT Polish Airlines 787 Dreamliner. Photograph by Linda Thomas.

The flight home on a LOT Polish Airlines 787 Dreamliner. Photograph by Linda Thomas.

Late Monday afternoon our group gathered in the hotel restaurant with some others who were joining us for dinner. We learned at about 5:00 that our flight from Frankfurt to Atlanta had been cancelled, and further that Lufthansa pilots were striking on all long haul flights! After visions of sleeping late the next morning, the reality began to sink in that we still needed to get to the Warsaw Airport early the next morning to try to get out on other airlines. After a 2:30 a.m. wakeup call, we arrived at Frederic Chopin airport about 4:30 a.m. to begin making other arrangements. It took some finagling on our fearless leaders’ part and help (however grumpily) of Lufthansa agents to get all of us on one flight on LOT Polish Airlines to Chicago O’Hare, to be leaving Warsaw about noon. We had plenty of time to walk around the airport, shop, go through the duty-free shops, eat, and say goodbye to several people who passed us by on their way to earlier departures, notably Karen Willard and Błażej Matusiak, who visited with us for a while before departing. We finally boarded for the long trip to Chicago, where we switched to an American Airlines flight to Atlanta. We said goodbye to Jo Dell Albi in Chicago, a relief for her since she was to be on call the next day. It was so late when we arrived in Atlanta that connecting flights were impossible. A few of our number stayed overnight in Atlanta. Eddie Mash said he was spending the night at the airport. Buell, Bridgett, Linda and I drove to Birmingham in Bridgett’s car, thanks to Buell for driving, where Linda’s car was parked at the airport. Linda and I then drove to her house, where my truck was parked. It’s a bit more than an hour’s drive to my house at Smith Lake in Cullman, and I arrived home about 4:00 a.m. on Wednesday, October 1. As close as my brain could figure with the changes in time, I had been up at least 36 hours, and I know others were longer than that before arriving home.

It was a fabulous trip that I think any of us would be ready to do again after a good rest! As Bridgett said, one of the best parts was having the time to visit with each other and to really get to know each other in a closer setting! Highlights of the two weeks included sharing our knowledge (and learning, always) about the Sacred Harp tradition; learning and reviewing the rudiments of the music; watching the blossoming of newcomers; and seeing, in the following weeks, their success in establishing Sacred Harp communities in their home cities around Europe. It is an amazing narrative. As a sixth generation Sacred Harp singer, I can say that my ancestors, and especially my grandparents whom I knew, would be amazed at the worldwide burst and spread of their beloved tradition. I have confidence that it will continue to grow and flourish worldwide.

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Karen and David Ivey leading at the Poland Convention with the group’s tour guide. Photograph by Linda Thomas.

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About Kathy Williams

Kathy's grandparents, Jim and Dessie Brown Fields, grew up singing Sacred Harp, as did her mother, Louise Holland. On the way home after her first night at singing school in 1958, when she was ten, her grandfather was so afraid she wouldn't like the music that he said, "You'll like it better when you get used to it." "I already like it!" she replied.
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One Response to A Long Time Traveling: A Sacred Harp Tour to the UK Convention, Camp Fasola Europe, and the Poland Convention

  1. I’m really glad that you were able to come over again Kathy. It was so lovely to spend time with you at camp and in Warsaw. I hope to get over to some singings in the United States starting next year, because I’m sure it will be a totally different experience! I can’t wait!

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