We begin below with a little bit of what the Youth Emphasis session of Camp Fasola 2014 meant to our kids, Faiz (9) and Cora (7), in their own words. After their account, we offer some thoughts on our experience of camp and how we’ve come to be a fasola family over the past few years. It’s well known that camp is a blast for older kids and young adults who come from around the country and around the world for the unbeatable fellowship, and for oldsters like us. We hope that our account of camp speaks to the place of the younger singers in this loving community.
Camp Fasola 2014 in the Words of Faiz (9) and Cora (7)
What were your favorite parts of Camp Fasola?
Faiz: One of my favorite parts of Camp Fasola was the teachers, because they found good ways to communicate useful information about music and other things, and gave an occasional laugh. I also liked the evening singings because they gave you a chance to exercise your new skills that you learned that day. I also liked camp recreation because it allowed variety. The food at camp was also pretty good. There are lots more things I liked about camp, and these were only the basics.
Cora: Zipline. Hayride. On the hayride I sang,
A hayride is just like a sandbox.
As long as you don’t have chickenpox.
And you are eating lox.
And you have a companion fox.
We have a tour. I ask Lauren, my teacher (and a good friend) to make a crown out of hay. She tries and succeeds. We all play in the hay like it was a sandbox. Again I sing… (I won’t write it again; it takes too much trouble.)
Zipline: I grew less confident by the minute. A scary zipline. When I got there at my turn I refused. On my way back I met Pattie (mother). I went back up thinking, “I want to do that.” I went up the hill when it was my turn. I calmed myself, held, and sat—wheeeeee! I zoomed towards the water. I could almost feel the cold water. Then, before I knew what was happening, I landed gently on my back in the water. I backstroked to shore where they were clapping.
What did you learn about music at Camp Fasola?
Cora: I learned why notes have nothing inside and a stem (half notes), filling and a stem (quarter notes), no filling and no stems (whole notes), one flag, one stem (with sound, heheheee), and one with two flags filled head and stem (like flowers).
What did you learn about yourself?
Faiz: I didn’t really learn anything about myself this year, mostly music.
Cora: I am very good at accent. I learned even more at Nathan’s class. I realized it when Daddy looked at my pink music journal I was making at camp. After that I asked a lot of people to talk without accent, if they could. Here I’d show off. The truth is, I learned it all in Nathan’s class.
What did you learn about the other campers?
Faiz: I mainly learned the personalities of campers, such as their tastes in music, like what songs they like.
Cora: Nathan is good at accent. Lauren loves hayrides. A lot of campers in my class (including me) can make faces out of notes, rests, and bird’s eyes. (If you are a student you might try.)
What else is important to know about camp?
Faiz: The day is divided up into classes. You will almost always have a choice to make, the only exception being lemonade making, so you will get to choose what to do. Also, you should know that camp only lasts a little less than a week, but the days always seem longer than a normal day.
Cora: You will make many new friends. This is important because if everyone was always yelling, everything would be so frustrating. You could not even do the hayride in peace. It is also important to learn new things and build knowledge.
What would you tell people who are thinking about bringing their families to camp?
Faiz: I would tell them a lot of what I have said already. But I would also tell them about what the classes are like, and what my favorite classes were, but I would mainly encourage them to go.
Cora: I would tell them that their children will have a long opportunity to learn music and they might become composers (like Faiz). I would tell them that they could learn in a fun way. I would tell them the excited, scared, and happy feeling of camp.
Mom’s Camp Report
For me, Camp Fasola offered an immersive several days in the shape-note culture of coming together in camaraderie and equality. Away from the stresses of my day-to-day life, I felt immediately at home among my fellow campers, who were there not only to teach and learn, but to sympathize and share.
Before I came to camp, I had my mind mostly on the musical lessons ahead and didn’t give much thought to how soul-feeding it would be to give up a few days to everything that a summer camp experience could be. By the end of the three days, I had won a toenail painting contest (albeit uncontested in my category), gone down the zipline (albeit after an extreme amount of hemming and hawing), and killed a scorpion (albeit a rather tiny one). I hadn’t anticipated how much I would enjoy the camp aspects of camp—a row around the lake, having my choice of fifty friends or friends-in-the-making to sit with at breakfast, a pick-up game of ping-pong, a crowd making lemonade.
Musically, my experience involved mostly but not exclusively following the class schedule of the younger campers, as I was chaperoning my seven-year-old daughter throughout. I am also a teacher, and I constantly found myself impressed by the great variety of ways that camp teachers helped us learn. I loved watching the pedagogical flair of Lauren Bock and Scott DePoy as they drew in their young students, making learning fun with their special techniques, from the basics of working through the scale and mapping it onto well-known songs, to the great anticipation of the final day’s performance by Scotty the Bad Leader, which involved Scott leading a song as ineptly as possible so that the young ones could show off their knowledge by finding his mistakes.
This was just one of many times at camp that young ones got to speak with authority—other times included the opportunities on Tuesday and Wednesday night for the girls and boys groups to organize and lead the powerful evening singing for all the campers and teachers. A young man from England who had benefitted from a travel scholarship aroused friendly laughter as he told about navigating customs with an unusual travel agenda, and he spoke movingly in a post-singing devotional about what learning Sacred Harp singing had meant to him in his own life.
Cora and I did check out a few of the classes aimed primarily at adults, and no one ever made her feel anything less than perfectly welcome. She made certain to sign up for a favored instructor’s class on accent, and she made copious notes about the different metrical possibilities. Nathan Rees’s class emphasized that accent might seem like one more thing to keep track of, but in fact is something that the voice does naturally.
In Lela Crowder’s class on poetry, we were offered new perspectives for understanding literature in general and in the Sacred Harp in particular, as Lela spoke about the universal archetypes that make the poetry of the Sacred Harp accessible to many. As Lela made clear, it’s not a code to be cracked by a chosen few, but rather a language that speaks with meaning about universal life experiences that can also be universally understood. Lela emphasized in particular how often the idea of life as a journey appears in the Sacred Harp, illustrating this with reference to “Wayfaring Stranger” (p. 457) While the class was mostly attended by adults, she made a point of including the younger students too (Anna and Cora). Here, as throughout the camp, the democratic spirit of Sacred Harp was much in evidence, as the voices of young people were invited into the conversation and treated with respect. And Lela also reminded us that a function of the Sacred Harp songs is to connect us to others who have experienced the feelings we now have. This was reinforced by having the class share their personal association with the poetry of different songs. It turns out that I am not the only one who has uncharitable thoughts when singing “Greenwich” (p. 183)!
Buell Cobb’s “can’t miss” class on the etiquette of the Sacred Harp tradition offered the perfect blend of good storytelling and practical suggestions as he shared with us his thoughts about what it means to be a good leader. Buell emphasized the importance of gaining a sense of the main stream within which traditional singers have carried on singing, while resisting the attraction of the extremes—“staying well within their good example” as a new singer, as well as being responsible to the class in picking songs that they are ready and willing to sing.
Many campers did not want to miss either the leading workshop with Bridget Kennedy and Judy Caudle or the celebration of Shelbie Sheppard and her love of shoes, and so these two events were combined into an extravaganza of fun. The critiques from the teachers took place in a supportive atmosphere, staying true to the policy that Pam Nunn established at the session’s outset: “If anyone gets their feelings hurt, we’ll just have to tickle you.” Indeed, as the session progressed, more and more hilarity ensued. If Faiz has ever had more fun than seeing Judy Caudle lead “Rose of Sharon” (p. 254), notes only, on the fly, I really don’t need to know about it. At the Henagar-Union Convention the following week, Miss Shelbie’s shoes were a must-have accessory for singers honored to help carry on her memory in some small way.
I felt especially inspired by a session on Leading Songs for Girls on the last day of camp. Here all three teachers—Rachel Rudi, Lela Crowder, and Lauren Bock—involved the (mostly) young women in a discussion of how being part of the Sacred Harp community means that you have an important and empowering role to play. The teachers both shared their experiences and got many students to speak about how they had come to feel more confident as leaders. This open discussion made explicit for the girls a point that had been implicit throughout camp: that each and every voice matters. It was impressive and moving to consider how these girls’ experience of shape-note singing—together with the strong examples of their teachers—might lay a firm foundation for confidence in other areas of their lives as well.
Being at camp means hearing bits of music around you all the time. For that week at least, everyone was willing to be led by Cora in yet another rendition of “Africa” (p. 178) at more or less the drop of a hat. Lying in my bunk the final night of camp, I was surrounded by music—Cora in the bed to my right singing a medley of “Africa” and “Wayfaring Stranger,” and Spencer, a new singer, singing “Holy Manna” (p. 59)
Becoming a Fasola Family (by Dad)
I realized something both basically human and truly divine was missing from my life when I harmonized on some old hymns during a visit to the Coopertown, New York, Farmers’ Museum in August 2011. The space would have been perfect for a Sacred Harp singing—a 1795 wooden church that had originally served worshippers in East Durham and Cornwallville (Greene County, New York)—but it was only a welcoming museum volunteer and I whose voices were trying to fill it. A month later, I had found my way to my local Sacred Harp singing.
I had been interested in beautiful old Anglo-American and Scotch-Irish songs since I was a teenager, and I was slowly starting to perceive the charming world of old-time fiddle tunes. Despite a couple very close calls, the fasola tradition, which would prove to be the giant missing piece at the center of my personal musical puzzle, had eluded my discovery until this moment and I was driven to think practically about community singing opportunities near me in upstate New York.
I found an out-of-date listing for the monthly Albany Sacred Harp singing. One of the top Google results offering to explain this vaguely familiar phrase, “Sacred Harp”—the Awake, My Soul website with its glorious recording of “Idumea” (p. 47b)—blew my mind instantly and completely. There were people who not only came together to sing for pure joy without prerequisites or performances, but they sang like this, they sang music like this, they sang poetry like this? This was a concentrated distillation of everything I’d loved getting little glimpses of in my previous affection for American song traditions. A month later, in September 2011, I was at our Jonesville monthly singing. I had learned the shapes, and I had my own copy of the book in hand (it had arrived with a kind but unnecessary note from Jesse P. Karlsberg making sure I knew about the existence of my local singing community). Quickly the folk songs and ballads I had sung with my children at bedtime gave way to “Return Again” (p. 335) and “The Golden Harp” (p. 274t). (It may have been better for the kids to know and love this singing first as something to share in the intimacy of our family life at home, rather than first meeting it as a public event—there was no mistaking the fact that it was for us to do together.)
In November and January, I brought the whole family to the monthly singing in Lenox, Massachusetts. I met a Massachusetts singer, Christine, whose daughter had been singing from the age of ten, and I heard my children’s voices sing “Old Hundred” (p. 49t) and “The Golden Harp” with the class. By February, I had attended singing schools taught by Tom Malone and Tim Eriksen and was teaching some of the rudiments to my children at home.
Half a year in: We have a classic singing-school chart at home, and Faiz at six is understanding the basics of how melodies relate to the scale and the shapes.
I never looked back, and my family’s musical, social, and spiritual world has been thoroughly changed. I am sometimes asked how it is that Faiz and Cora should come to have such a love and or deep involvement in Sacred Harp singing. I know that in a basic sense we are not the authors of this good and important thing in our family life. And I know that experiences will differ greatly from one family to another. But I believe that a crucial part of it for us was adopting into our lives a larger singing culture. Camp Fasola has been a joyous experience for us as much because it gathers and strengthens the representatives of that culture as for any other reason. What do I mean by saying that adopting a “culture” rather than merely a pastime has been important to this journey of ours? If Sacred Harp had been a mere activity among others, something to partake of in only its most approachable aspects, something we granted a defined place in our lives intended to meet our preexisting needs and desires, without letting it redefine us in important ways, then I doubt it could have held our children’s interest enough for them to become rooted in the singing as they have. In part this meant becoming part of the singing community, its fellowship and its ways. In part it meant appreciating, on their own terms, the sacred lyrics that expressed truths so dear to previous families of singers that they preserved the tunes which served that poetry, maintained the skills to sing them together in harmony, and kept the singings going strong.
In this way we have found a special kind of being alive that is worth sacrificing for. No doubt there are many other ways to find this in life; we have been content to allow this one, accepted in all its specificity, to serve our children as a type of transcendence. Sacred Harp singing could only serve our family as our musical culture because it was so much more—a coherent tradition that reaches deep into life, more than the sum of its parts, nurtured and taught with purpose by those who carried the culture forward. It has all the uniqueness and energy of something alive, and many of us who drift into it late and clueless soon find ourselves attached to its roots, committed to its purposes, and growing in its paths. None of this makes it the same or predictable for everyone under its seal; we have certainly seen in our family how Sacred Harp leads our very different natures by diverse routes to joy and knowledge. How much truer this is across the incredible diversity of the worldwide community of singers today.
Any new singer soon begins to realize that Sacred Harp singers are not simply using ordinary musical principles to render notes from the page so as to please the tastes that they or any audience may have acquired in some other milieu. There is a great tradition that informs what we do, and the singing school is undeniably a foundation of it. Camp Fasola affords to many the opportunity to drink in some of this tradition and let the life of the music breathe more fully within us. I arrived at camp for the first time with a commitment to singing as part of who I was, but this did not mean that I had figured out everything I needed to understand about what we do when we sing—quite the opposite! The connections we keep making to the people, ways, and feelings that constitute the tradition and its history can (mysteriously) even make us better known to ourselves.
In Sacred Harp, we do not take up for our own use artefacts from an age-old musical culture; we become participants in it. Otherwise, how would a family, after discovering they might love to sing, actually end up receiving the rewards promised by that first feeling of love? The surprising educative power of the shapes and of the tradition has proved itself in my family. Sacred Harp singing rekindled my only-ever-shaky amateur musical literacy, made my wife a musician for the first time, and gave my children a better foundation in music (not just singing but all music) than I could ever have hoped to impart without the singing culture’s resources of knowledge, practice, and community. Sacred Harp, unlike most cultural experiences (“for kids” or for adults), faces us with all the complications and obstacles that come from encountering another culture and making its unique values and special realities our own. Together with this, it offers all the benefits of having an entire language at our disposal; as citizens of a new world, we can begin to speak its language and in the process learn about ourselves by walking in its “old paths.”
Sacred Harp singing is a way of being with each other. It does the good work of bringing our hearts and voices together, whether or not we have any particular background or any instruction in the rudiments. Camp Fasola, with all its fun and fellowship and nightly tides of powerful song, proves this abundantly. Such communion in song has changed me and proclaimed loudly in my soul the great commandments of love for God and neighbor. But camp also shows us how and why, in our history, singers’ great concern for such higher goods has led them to be singing-school students and teachers as well. On the one hand, singers of all stripes learn songs and musical principles, how better to be together and to sing together. On the other hand, they feel the comfort and joy that comes from “finding their tribe” at Camp Lee. I think this is particularly valuable to singing children and families who may go through most of their year without enough evidence that their strangest and most wonderful pursuit is one whose creative power is at work in so many other children and families from all over.
Editor’s Note: If Camp Fasola sounds like fun to you, we encourage you to sign up for the 2015 session. Registration for the youth session of Camp (July 6–10, at Camp Lee in Anniston, Alabama), is open online at campfasola.org. Scholarships are available.