Regional Roots: Growing Sacred Harp in the Netherlands, Alaska, and British Columbia

Introduction

Sacred Harp’s first wave of expansion beyond the southern United States was boosted by the dedication of dozens of long-time southern singers who traveled repeatedly to sing with newcomers across the country. These emissaries exemplified the sincere fellowship and deep love of our music that has long characterized Sacred Harp singing. Their presence also shored up the sound of these new singings, enveloping new singers in the received practices that define Sacred Harp’s rich history. This contact helped new singers learn and provided the connection to southern singing that ensured that as singing from The Sacred Harp spread, its many traditions followed. [Read about a 1985 trip to New England in a previous issue of the Newsletter—Ed.]

Night Singing in Amsterdam

Night singing in Amsterdam. Photograph by Lauren Bock.

Today Sacred Harp classes across the United States and in parts of Europe are well established; their local ranks capable of sustaining lively and well-attended singings and conventions. Singers are still connected to each other across Sacred Harp’s ever-expanding geography through reciprocal travel. Yet in some areas, regional cores—sturdy groups of singers with substantial Sacred Harp experience—are helping ensure the success of new classes in their areas by attending new singings in significant numbers, holding singing schools, forming friendships, and encouraging budding singers to travel within their region and beyond. Through these activities, singers from regional cores welcome new classes into the international Sacred Harp network, fostering Sacred Harp’s growth in a period when chartered busses no longer regularly transport southern singers to new conventions (although talk is underway to revive them). I myself have lived in places where our singings were supported by nearby hubs and in some of these regional cores. In central Connecticut and the mid-Hudson Valley of New York, our small but stable local groups were supported at all-day singings and conventions by larger established cores in Boston, New York City, and Western Massachusetts. In Boston, and now in Atlanta, I’ve carpooled with other members of these cities’ active and growing Sacred Harp classes to support singing schools and new singings in our regions.

Over the past few months I have seen Sacred Harp’s regional hubs in action far from home. In late August, my wife Lauren Bock and I attended singings in Amsterdam and Utrecht, and in October, I traveled to Sitka, Alaska, and Vancouver, British Columbia, in western Canada. Each of these newer local singings were supported by and connected to Sacred Harp’s larger family through the presence of singers from well-established classes in the region. Although the singings I attended differed in size, circumstance, and history, all owed their success to the energetic efforts of devoted local singers, boosted by regional support. The quality of the singing itself, the speed of its growth, and its sense of connection to the larger Sacred Harp world are all buoyed by these nearby hubs. In her essay in last winter’s issue of the Newsletter on “our transnationally expanding singing community,” Ellen Lueck argued “that the roots of … new singings [established abroad] are growing, and will soon run deep.”1 In the Pacific Northwest, in Germany, and in many other places, Sacred Harp singing’s regional roots are deep and vital, spurring the flowering of new branches across the Sacred Harp landscape.

Germany as an Engine of Central Europe’s Sacred Harp Growth:
The Netherlands All-Day Singing

Sacred Harp arrived in the Netherlands when Amsterdam lawyer Anne Eringa discovered the music by happenstance and traveled to Alabama in 2009 to attend Camp Fasola. Eringa began attending singings in Europe soon after, and eventually founded a local group. To firm up its ranks, she drew in members of a Bach choir with which she sings. Singings continued in Amsterdam in the years that followed, growing at a slow yet steady pace. A plan to hold the country’s first all-day singing coalesced after the singers were invited to organize a workshop at the Utrecht Early Music Festival, a world-renowned annual gathering in a historic city thirty minutes southeast of Amsterdam by train. Festival organizers invited Cath Tyler to teach a morning singing school. The Amsterdam singers obtained permission to use the designated space, a school auditorium, to continue singing into the afternoon. About seventy festival attendees signed up for the workshop, joining local singers and Sacred Harp visitors from afar. I was invited to give a short historical introduction before Cath’s workshop, and to speak about Sacred Harp’s contemporary sound and expansion to Europe at a symposium held at the festival the day before the singing.

Lauren Bock on one of Amsterdam's canal lined streets

Lauren Bock on one of Amsterdam’s canal lined streets.

Lauren and I arrived in Amsterdam on August 26, a few days before the festival. Anne generously hosted us in her apartment. During a couple of days of exploring the city we attempted to adjust to the bike-centric culture; enjoyed the beautiful canals, art, and architecture; and got to meet several of the Dutch singers over dinner, a forthrightly friendly group of varied ages and backgrounds. The day before the festival symposium, we traveled out to Utrecht, equally beautiful with its two-tiered central Oldgracht canal, lined with cafés and shops. We ran into Frankfurt singers Andreas Manz and Laura Eisen at a Hesperion XXI concert in the festival’s main concert hall. That evening we enjoyed exploring the city with Andreas and Laura, winding up sitting at one of many café tables crowding a large cobblestoned square filled with socializing patrons enjoying the night air.

Night Singing in Amsterdam - Singing 84 for the First Time

Night singing in Amsterdam, singing 84 for the first time. Photograph by Lauren Bock.

A number of singers from Germany and two from the United Kingdom joined several of the Dutch locals for my talk during the August 29 symposium, which focused on the contemporary performance of historical music forms such as early music. The singers sang two songs—“Hallelujah” (p. 146 in The Sacred Harp) and “Florida” (p. 203)—during the talk, which addressed how contemporary Sacred Harp singers think about the style’s past in deciding how we should sound when we sing. After the symposium we journeyed back to Amsterdam for an evening singing and social; perhaps the largest local singing yet held in Amsterdam. Twenty-five or so local singers were joined by us two Americans, Ellyn Stokes from the UK, and several singers from various locations in Germany. The strong singing offered a chance to meet and get to know each other prior to the all-day singing scheduled for the next day. Midway through the evening singing, a German visitor called “Amsterdam” (p. 84). Amazingly, the song was new to the Dutch singers in the room!

The all-day singing itself began on Sunday morning, August 30, with Cath’s singing school. The Utrecht school auditorium in which we gathered was full with over 100 singers and festival-goers arranged in a hollow square. After my short introduction on the history of singing schools and singings, Cath taught an engaging introduction to the rudiments, sharing knowledge of Sacred Harp’s practices and her own love of the music, making particularly clear how meaningful it is to singers. A delightful moment for non-Dutch speaking visitors occurred when Cath, in the course of running the group through scale exercises, led the group through the first notes of “Twinkle twinkle”/”Baa-baa black sheep.”2 The class caught on, and continued singing the melody, gradually breaking into a set of words in Dutch, and continuing to the end of the song. As the singing school continued, Cath taught the class to sing “Primrose” (p. 47t) from a printed packet. The sound of all 100 of us was astounding.


Cath Tyler leads “Primrose.”

Dinner on the playground, Utrecht all-day singing.

Dinner on the playground, Utrecht all-day singing.

We broke for dinner on the grounds—a bag lunch in the school’s playground—and then reunited for a demonstration singing for festival attendees. After singing the two songs we had practiced during the singing school, the arranging committee took over and the singing itself was underway. Following a break, many workshop participants left, leaving us with a core group of Dutch and German singers to carry on for the remainder of the day. For almost all of the Dutch singers, this marked their first all-day singing experience. Although some had sung locally for a few years, others were almost entirely new. In the days leading up to the singing, the Dutch group had attempted to learn about and decide whether and how to adopt Sacred Harp practices common to conventions: what the roles and responsibilities of the singing’s chair, chaplain, and arranging committee would be, and when to incorporate prayer into the day’s proceedings. The German singers present—drawn from three cities with thriving singings (Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Bremen) and other towns where singings are not yet held but in many cases workshops were already scheduled—provided a continuity of practices and profound support to the sound of our class. Much as English and Irish singers do at new singings in the British Isles, the German singers helped connect first time attendees to the broader Sacred Harp network with their voices and their embodiment of our music’s traditions.

Socializing by the canal in Utrecht after the all-day singing.

Socializing by the canal in Utrecht after the all-day singing. Photograph by Lauren Bock.

The singing weekend also cemented bonds, several newly formed, between the Dutch and German (and English and American) singers attending. Many of us lingered at the school after the singing concluded, then crossed the street to the bank of a nearby canal to sit and talk. The two of us then followed a handful of German singers to the home of Utrecht singer and linguistics professor Jacomine Nortier for a delicious home-cooked Indonesian meal and more good conversation. As it so often is after a moving weekend of singing, food, and fellowship, it was hard to say good-bye.

Pacific Northwestern Roots and Sacred Harp’s Growth Above the 49th Parallel: The Alaska Convention, and the Vancouver All-Day Singing

Sacred Harp has had a foothold in Alaska for decades, yet singing in Vancouver, British Columbia, in western Canada is just a few years old. Sacred Harp has had a foothold in Alaska for decades. A singing community in Fairbanks coalesced in the 1970s when a singer from Austin, Texas, arrived and introduced the style to a group of friends who were singing mostly rounds. In Anchorage, Bob Hume and Peg Faithful were introduced to Sacred Harp by Michael McKernan from Vermont at a local dance camp in the early 1980s. They ordered copies of the 1971 Original Sacred Harp: Denson Revision and recordings, and for several years taught workshops at the local dance camp and had a monthly singing at their home. Contemporary Fairbanks stalwarts Lynn and Charley Basham first encountered the music in the 1980s at one of Bob and Peg’s dance camp workshops. Today the Fairbanks intergenerational group includes singers with decades of experience and high-schoolers who have just discovered the style. Kari Lundgren encountered Sacred Harp singing in Fairbanks in the early 1990s and sang in Louisiana and Mississippi while attending graduate school in the area. With David Kriess-Tompkins, Kari started a local singing in Sitka upon her return to Alaska in 2000. A motivated and energetic organizer, Kari decided several years later to take on organizing the state’s first convention, which was held in 2008. More than thirty singers attended this first convention, including several from Oregon and Washington. Since then the singing has gradually grown: over fifty attended on a bright sunny day this October. Two years ago John David Thacker, then from Anchorage, attended the Convention in Sitka and decided it was time to revitalize Sacred Harp singing in Anchorage. With Bob, Peg, Joseph McGilloway, and a few others, a semi-monthly singing in Anchorage got off the ground. Meanwhile, the Fairbanks weekly singing continues.3

In Vancouver, as in Amsterdam, Sacred Harp’s first seeds were planted by a Camp Fasola camper. Caroline Helmeczi, who attended the adult session in 2010, started a weekly singing at her home soon after returning. This singing received a major boost of energy just this year when Kevin Beirne, who recently relocated to Vancouver from Cork, Ireland, discovered Sacred Harp, attended the youth session of Camp Fasola, and returned to Vancouver excited at the prospect of organizing an all-day singing. Since the summer, the Vancouver weekly singing has moved to the Grandview Calvary Baptist Church, where it attracts a small but growing group of singers. The Vancouver singers hosted their first all-day singing this August, a successful affair that attracted more than fifty singers from as far away as New York City, and was supported by many from the Pacific Northwest.

View from the "Milk Run"

View from the “milk run.”

I visited the Alaska convention and Vancouver weekly singing on a trip to a conference in Vancouver this October, arriving in Sitka on the 22nd, the Thursday before the singing. While en route, after arriving in Seattle, I joined a dozen other singers from California, Oregon, and Washington (and one from Texas, an Alaskan singer expat returning home) on the “milk run,” an Alaska Airlines plane that runs from Seattle to Fairbanks with stops along the way in Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, and Anchorage. The view from the plane was incredible: dramatic tree-covered mountains spotted with pools of freshwater fed by the near-constant rain, descending into a vast blue ocean, snow-covered peaks in the distance. The large number of singers with me on the flight made it clear that, now in its eighth year, the Alaska Convention is still supported by singers from nearby states. As I soon learned, the Sitka singers overwhelmingly reward out-of-state singers with wonderful hospitality, delicious Alaskan cuisine, and a full itinerary of sightseeing.

Hostel in Sitka

Hostel in Sitka.

Once in Sitka we were shepherded over a small suspension bridge to a rustic café for supper. The town’s radio station was located right upstairs from the café and when we finished eating about fifteen of us walked straight into the studio and sang a few songs on the air to promote the upcoming singing. While some of the visiting singers stayed with locals, many of us were put up at the local hostel, which the convention had exclusively booked for the weekend. In this camp-like atmosphere we had the chance to chat into the evening and get to know each other.

Friday was a jam-packed day. A tour of the town must have taken us on nearly all of Sitka’s twelve miles of paved roads. We drove along the harbor, past the Russian Orthodox church (one of many remnants of the town’s Russian history), the Tlingit meeting house (one of many markers of the continuing presence of Native Alaskans in Sitka), the totem pole park at the museum, and to impressive sanctuaries for injured bears and raptors. After lunch, many of the Alaskan singers joined us tourists for a whale watch in the harbor. The beauty of this spot, enhanced by the unseasonably clear weather, is hard to convey with words alone. The boat navigated through kelp forests and between rocky outcroppings up to a nearby volcanic island and then back, passing dozens of spouting and diving humpback whales. A bald eagle, perched at the entrance to the marina, stood sentinel as the tour came to an end.

Sitka Harbor.

Sitka Harbor from whale watching boat.

A whale viewed from Sikta Harbor

Humpback whale spotted near Sitka.

I taught a singing school that evening for a crowd of nearly sixty singers, two-thirds of them Alaskans with a range of experience levels. The singing itself drew a slightly smaller crowd, probably because the unseasonably sunny weather persisted; it was hard for Sitkans to pass up such a rare day of bright fall sun. But the singing was strong nonetheless, ably orchestrated by chair Steve Helwig, of Eugene, Oregon. Kari was taking a year off after chairing the convention the previous seven years, but you wouldn’t know it from her constant work ferrying singers around town, cooking, cleaning, and otherwise taking care of us guests.

Alaska Convention class

Alaska Convention class.

As in the Netherlands, the support of visitors from the strong nearby singing communities such as Seattle and Portland made a considerable impact, bolstering the sound of our Alaskan hosts. These excellent visiting singers helped hold down the sections, and modeled leading and singing for the Alaskans. Singers from these Pacific Northwestern states, where Sacred Harp singing has a thirty-year history, have contributed to the strength of the convention each year since its founding, demonstrating their dedication to supporting fledgling singings in their region. Though perhaps it’s also a testament to the wonderful hospitality of the Sitka singers and the stunning surroundings.

Dinner on the grounds at the Alaska Convention

Dinner on the grounds at the Alaska Convention.

Oh, and did I mention the food? Dinner on the grounds in Sitka alone is worth the trip. The most delicious meal included black cod, shrimp so big I thought they were lobster tails, moose barbeque, a salad made of crunchy kelp covered on each side with cod roe, sea asparagus, sourdough bread made from 100-year-old starter, and much, much more. When our hosts told us about the various dishes before we ate, we learned just how fresh the seafood was, much of it collected just that day from relatives and friends in town.

The singing, at the southern tip of the country’s largest state, was in a sense the northern outpost of the thriving Sacred Harp network of the Pacific Northwest. Singers from Oregon and Washington have attended nearly every session of the Alaska Convention. As they help bolster the class during the singing, they also strengthen ties between the Alaska singers and the region at large, forging friendships while in Sitka and helping to promote the event to Pacific Northwesterners throughout the year.

A social Saturday evening provided time for yet more fellowship, which continued back at the hostel that night, and at brunch at the airport café the next morning. I was among several singers headed back to the lower forty-eight on Sunday’s midday “milk run” plane, while several others stuck around for Sitka’s monthly singing that afternoon. Parting was again poignant, as we said farewell to new friends from across the state and throughout the region.

As others headed home, I traveled back north from Seattle to Vancouver, where an academic conference I was presenting at that week fortunately enabled me to stay long enough to attend the Thursday night weekly singing at Grandview Calvary Baptist Church. The evening of energetic singing was the largest weekly gathering the Vancouver singers have yet hosted, with sixteen singers present including members of the growing core group, two local newcomers, and three visitors aside from myself, David Wright, Kate Coxon, and Laura McMurray, who had driven for two hours from Seattle for the singing, crossing an international border along the way. The larger than expected crowd added energy to the night’s singing. Solid singers supported each part. Some had just been singing a few months but were already quite able sight-singers. During a break between the two hour-long sessions, singers enjoyed a delicious spice cake Kevin Beirne had baked. Social media posts promoting the singing tend to focus on Kevin’s weekly creations, which are meticulously documented and often cater to visitors’ tastes (I had requested the spice cake).

At a local watering hole after the singing, Kevin, David, and Kate described the first Vancouver All-Day singing. Like the Alaska Convention, the well-attended day was enlivened by the presence of many experienced singers from Washington and Oregon. Their voices helped make the day a solid example of the powerful, confident, and energetic sound of the contemporary all-day singings too many of us take for granted that bring together experienced and new singers alike from numerous local classes. This sound was a departure from the more intimate weekly practice singings in Vancouver, which typically drew a group of six to a dozen singers, mostly new learners. The invigorating sound of the all-day singing expanded the growing group’s horizons. The weekend also fostered personal connections between the Washington and Oregon singers and their Vancouver counterparts. Vancouver singers have reciprocated, traveling to Seattle for the fall session of the Pacific Northwest Convention, for example.4 As they had on this evening, Seattle singers began to regularly make the drive north across the border to sing in Vancouver on a Thursday night, often returning home well after midnight. These interconnections represent a considerable level of commitment from singers on both sides of the 49th parallel.

Conclusion

My trips to these singings were delightful reminders of the warm hospitality Sacred Harp singers enjoy across our expanding transnational landscape. They also made me think about how the ways singers support this growth are shifting as once-new groups become established and our map continues to expand. Certainly some drivers of this growth have stayed the same. All three of these areas’ singing communities owe their existence to motivated local singers and continued connections to Sacred Harp singing’s most venerable regional cores. Singers in Amsterdam, Sitka, and Vancouver have worked hard year after year to ensure Sacred Harp’s persistence, sometimes singing by themselves or with just a friend or two for months on end before a class of committed singers cohered and hosting an all-day singing became possible. While regional hubs are a great help, for a hub’s range to expand through the support of a new singing, there must be enthusiasm on the ground. What’s more, southern singing schools and singings remain critical training grounds and arenas for cementing these local leaders’ interest in Sacred Harp. For Caroline, Kevin, and Anne, attending Camp Fasola in Alabama was a key step in building confidence in the ability to form a regular practice singing, and in learning skills such as singing, leading, and keying. [Camp Fasola will hold sessions in Alabama and Poland in 2016. Learn more and register at campfasola.org.—Eds.]

Site of the Alaska Convention

Site of the Alaska Convention.

As I observed on these trips, the presence of well established and still growing Sacred Harp classes nearby accelerates the growth of these new areas. In the 1970s and 1980s new classes depended on contact with southern singers for a connection to Sacred Harp’s traditions. In the absence (and even sometimes despite the presence) of such ties, new Sacred Harp singings during this period developed esoteric practices for a time, experienced limited growth, and sometimes functioned in the shadow of stronger and more regionally well-connected folk dance communities. Today, the deepened roots of regional hubs such as those in Germany and the Pacific Northwest foster the flourishing of new groups, offering support and well-worn paths into our international network. Other regional networks exist in the United Kingdom, and, of course, in well-established Sacred Harp regions such as the Northeast, Midwest, and Southeast of the United States. Singers from established cores in North Alabama and Nashville, Tennessee, for example, have recently fostered the growth of emerging singings in Suwanee and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. This regional support too relies on the devotion of dozens of committed singers, willing to travel hours by car or plane, sometimes across national borders, to attend all-day singings, singing schools, and even weekly and monthly practice singings. The support singers in these regional hubs provide is hard work, but it’s also rewarding and great fun—frequently accompanied by delightful food and the opportunity to take in new sites. Even more importantly, trips such as those taken by these singers offer a chance to make wonderful new friends.

So let’s continue to encourage new singers and attend their singings in our regions when they crop up. Let’s give them the space to build their own talents and local capacities. And let’s also support them, and model for them the joys of travel to Sacred Harp singings near and far. Let’s help these members of fledgling classes to discover, as we have, that in addition to the food and the music, a chief joy of Sacred Harp singing is the wide-ranging fellowship our singing and traditions foster.

  1. Ellen Lueck, “The Old World Seeks the Old Paths: Observing Our Transnationally Expanding Singing Community,” Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 3, no. 2 (November 12, 2014), http://originalsacredharp.com/2014/11/12/the-old-world-seeks-the-old-paths-observing-our-transnationally-expanding-singing-community/. []
  2. The melody to this song predates its association with either set of lyrics and its life as an accompaniment to the English alphabet. The tune originated in the French countryside in the mid-1700s, where it was known as “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman.” See George List, “The Distribution of a Melodic Formula: Diffusion or Polygenesis?,” Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council 10 (1978): 36. []
  3. Thanks to Kari Lundgren, Lynn Basham, and Charley Basham for information on Sacred Harp’s history in Alaska. []
  4. Caroline, in fact, has been attending singings in the Pacific Northwest since 2009. []

About Jesse P. Karlsberg

Jesse P. Karlsberg is the vice president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. He edits the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter. Originally from Boston, he lives in Atlanta and is senior digital scholarship strategist at Emory University.
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