“Zack, I’ll never forget this as long as I live,” declared fellow singer Steve Schmidgall as our group turned to acknowledge the applause of the smiling crowd that had stopped to listen to this strange music we were singing in the low, columned passageway leading into the central train station. It was Kulturnatt weekend—a time when the university town of Uppsala, Sweden, explodes with art, music, dance, theater, film, lectures, performances, and live demonstrations at nearly one hundred different venues across the city, and when the streets themselves come alive with everything from Argentine tango to male bellydancers to the säckpipa, or Swedish bagpipe. We ourselves were a disparate group of singers from five different countries, and we had just finished our first outreach of the weekend. Several listeners came forward to ask what we were all about.
Well, we were all about helping Zack Lindahl—an energetic, determined young Swedish clergyman and Sacred Harp enthusiast—spark interest in a permanent, ongoing shape-note group in Sweden. Zack had arranged other singings before, but the weekend of September 12–13, 2015, was to feature a two-day singing school led by Michael Walker from the United Kingdom, as well as both impromptu and scheduled outreach singings across the town. Zack sent out an invitation on the “Sacred Harp Friends” Facebook page for the international community to come join him in Uppsala for the Kulturnatt festivities.
Those of us who answered the call arrived to cool but pleasant Swedish September weather, and on the evening of Friday the 11th, the first arrivals began to congregate for a meet-and-eat at O’Connor’s Irish Pub on the large downtown plaza of Stora Torget. The good Swedish beer may have had something to do with nearly a dozen singers from Europe and the United States breaking into Idumea and New Britain (pp. 47b and 45t in The Sacred Harp), while Zack took the opportunity to invite the pub’s bemused patrons to our upcoming events. There was more beer, singing, and evangelizing as we moved to Murphy’s Pub a few blocks away. It was definitely going to be an interesting weekend!
At noon the next day, our full coterie of seventeen singers gathered at St. Michael’s Church (Mikaelskyrkan) in a small park on Kungsgatan (King Street). This was a warm-up session and a chance for us to coalesce as a group. We consisted of Zack and his sister, Billie, along with his good friends Jonas Bengtson and Hampus Maijer from Sweden; Michael Walker and Werner Ullah from the United Kingdom; and Andreas Manz, Franziska Schmidt, Christina Schümann, and Eva Striebeck from Germany, along with Geoff Grainger who had most recently been living in Bremen. Cornelia van den Doel hailed from the Netherlands; and Steve Schmidgall, Charles Biada, Abigail Braden, Pamela Minor, and I were the US contingent. An hour and a half went quickly by as we ran through many of the familiar standards, and then we took a break for “dinner the grounds”—delightful salad, sandwiches, and quiches that Zack, Jonas, and Hampus had stayed up late the night before to prepare.
It was after the warm-up session that we proceeded up Kungsgatan to Resecentrum, the central train station, for our outreach singing in the underground entranceway. The streets were already bustling with townspeople and visitors curious to sample the myriad offerings. We crossed the large plaza in front of the station and descended into the passageway to form our square by one of the massive columns supporting the low ceiling. And then we began to sing. Passersby were stopping to listen, and soon a large crowd encircled us, as our voices reverberated through the cavernous space. Zack would pause after every few songs to explain a little about Sacred Harp and to encourage newcomers to attend the singing schools, which were scheduled for later that afternoon and on the morrow. On our last song—“Hallelujah” (p. 146)—the crowd was invited to join in on the chorus. A rousing “Aaand I’ll sing hal-le-lu-jah…” filled the station, and as the last notes echoed away amid the crowd’s applause, we were elated. This was truly a highlight of the weekend—and we did, in fact, attract a few listeners to the singing schools.
As we departed the station for our walk back to St. Michael’s, a man on stilts ambled through the milling crowds, while a synchronized modern dance group began its performance near where we had been singing. Out in the plaza in front of the station, a group of young women in spangled bikinis and feathered headdresses were warming up to the strains of a Brazilian samba band. Kulturnatt was in full swing.
By five in the afternoon, a group of thirty singers had gathered at St. Michael’s for the class. Michael Walker’s pragmatic approach to teaching—more songs, less talk—quickly got the newcomers introduced to the rudiments. Within a short time, he covered major and minor scales, time signatures and accents, and even fuging tunes. During the open singing that followed, the newcomers were encouraged into the hollow square to co-lead. All in all, we felt that we had made a good beginning to Sacred Harp in Sweden, for by the end of the session we had sung nearly twenty songs, from the simple to the complex. We felt quite justified in a bit of celebrating back at O’Connor’s. There in the festive atmosphere, we enjoyed some good beer and pub food, and we were fortuitously treated to an impromptu concert by three lively young female patrons whose intricately harmonizing voices filled the bar with Swedish folksongs. However, it had been a long day of our own singing, and we slowly began to disperse to our various lodgings. A few stalwarts, though, struck off to make the rounds of a few more pubs before evening’s end—names withheld to protect the guilty.
Wandering towards our hotel, Pamela and I could hear the distant sound of the Swedish bagpipes, and as we proceeded up Dragarbrunnsgatan, a full American-style swing band was providing the jazzy beat for twenty or so swing dancers, dressed in 1940s garb, who twirled and swirled before an appreciative crowd. It was clear that not everyone in Uppsala was ready for bed.
Sunday dawned to a splendidly clear day, and after breakfast, we walked across one of the flower-bedecked bridges that span Uppsala’s pretty river, the Fyris. We headed up the hill past the main cathedral, the Domkyrkan, which towers above the town, and continued across the square to the small, newly-reopened parish Church of the Holy Trinity. Our group had been invited to sing during the morning service at this historic church, founded in the 1200s. Inside, the bare brick arches and the spare green and earth-toned frescoes lent a simple grace to its nave and apses. Vestry women in traditional Swedish dress busied themselves readying the service. By the time we finished our warmup in the adjacent rectory, the church had filled with a large and diverse congregation. Up some steps to a side apse we formed our square, and between the scripture readings we sang “Ninety-Third Psalm” (p. 31t). Then, while children played quietly by the steps below us and the congregation came forward for the bread and wine, Michael led us through the remaining songs we had selected. What an honor it was to blend our voices in such a beautiful space for this simple, ancient act of worship.
Our second singing school was held at Uppsala University’s Musicum, home to the Academic Chamber Choir and the University Jazz Orchestra. Again, we had about thirty participants, and with Michael’s song-oriented approach, the newcomers were quickly participating. Andreas Manz somehow became the designated co-leader, so several new singers got their first taste of the hollow square by his side. At the conclusion of the evening we could see that Zack was getting the contact information from a few who seemed eager to become involved in a local Sacred Harp group.
All good things do end, and several of our international group had flights to catch or other pressing obligations. But the rest of us were treated to a bonfire and cook-out at a small campground outside of Uppsala. With libations and roasted sausages, we celebrated what had been a most enjoyable weekend. By the warmth of the fire we could look back and recognize the long planning and hard work that Zack had put into making us welcome and ensuring the schools’ success. Similarly, we could appreciate the strong leadership and focus that Michael had given us as a group. It was with a mixture of sadness and satisfaction that we remaining singers walked up the hill in the dark to wait for the bus back to Uppsala, from whence we would go our separate ways.
Since our return home, Zack has posted that a core group of seven singers is now meeting on a regular basis, and that he is applying for official recognition as an educational organization—a move that will bring assistance with buying loaner books, and help with advertising and venues. I am definitely hoping to hear one day that there will be a first annual Swedish Convention. Jag skulle gärna vilja åka tillbaka—I’d gladly return!