And to thy glory …

That's me on the right leading with my friend Sam Somers in Henegar, AL last summer.
That’s me on the right leading with my friend Sam Somers in Henegar, AL last summer.

 

I’ve mentioned to people off and on that one of the things I do for fun is sing a kind of music called Sacred Harp, or shape-note singing. This usually elicits a polite smile and a “that’s nice” sort of response. Basically, unless they are a bigger music geek than the norm, most people have no idea what it is I’m talking about.¹

In the proto-version of this blog, back in the days when Facebook notes were a thing, the very first note that I posted was about Sacred Harp singing. I had come across a short article online that  laid out some of the basics of the music, its roots, traditions, and modern practice.

The link is now dead, so I can’t direct you to the piece, but here’s a short excerpt:

The Sacred Harp repertoire draws upon late 18th- and 19th-century hymns from the Christian tradition. These fuguing tunes are set to four-part, archaic harmonies that hint of medieval “organum,” with strong fifths and frequent note doubling. Performing them is an exercise in musical democracy. Each participant gets a turn at leading a song and making important musical decisions.

Shape-note singers sit or stand in a hollow square, which to Jessica Beers, chairperson of Portland’s All Day Singing, “is a living manifestation of the ‘different but equal’ axiom. The notation makes it possible for anybody to learn how to read the music, and the community makes it welcoming for anybody who is interested in participating in the tradition as we know it.”

It’s important to point out that this is not a performance tradition, but rather a social and spiritual one. When we get together, whether in a small local monthly session or in larger all-day singings, we sing for ourselves, for each other, for all those who came before us in this tradition, and for all those who will come after.

While the music is Christian in its theology, singers today come from all religious backgrounds and none. All are welcome. It is an inclusive tradition.

In the Sacred Harp community we are admonished to “bring nothing to the square that divides us.” Whatever our differences in religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, economic class, social status, or political beliefs, when we come together we sing as one.

To give you an idea of what this music is like, check out the videos below.

This first is the trailer from the documentary film, “Awake My Soul.” In the 11 years that I’ve been singing this music I’ve had the honor to get to meet, sing with, and become friends with some of the folk featured in the film and who appear in the trailer.

This next one is from the 2017 Ireland Sacred Harp Convention held in Cork. While this is an American musical form, in recent years the music has spread abroad with regular singings in Canada, Ireland and the UK, Germany, Poland, Sweden, France, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and even Israel.

This next one is from the 2016 Michiana Convention held each July outside of Goshen, IN. This clip picks up with a song being led by my daughter, Sarah, who started coming to singings with me soon after I started in 2006. Now that she’s in college in Tennessee, not far from the epicenter of the living Sacred Harp tradition in northeastern Alabama, she sings nearly every week.

This last is once again from our singing friends in Ireland, from their 2012 convention. I picked this because the song, Consecration, is one of my favorites, and this recording captures beautifully the power of the music.

For those who want to learn more, the place to start is fasola.org. From there you can learn all about this form of early-American sacred music and find locations for singings. In my part of Michigan, the largest monthly is at the Ark in Ann Arbor, every second Sunday of the month (except for July and August). We sing in my town of Lake Orion on the fourth Sunday, and there are also regular monthly singings in Detroit, Kalamazoo, and Lansing.

Singings are always open to the public, and no experience is necessary. You can learn more about Detroit-area and Michigan singings at the Detroit Sacred Harp website.

If you’re in the Detroit area tomorrow (Saturday, April 22) and want to experience this for yourself, the first Detroit All-Day Singing will be held at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Woodward Avenue starting at 9:30 a.m. All are welcome.

¹I also play the banjo, but that’s a tragic tale for another time.

This is England

 

god save queen

As I was getting ready to leave for work this  morning I heard on the radio an interview with John Lydon talking about his new book, Mr. Rotten’s Songbook, which includes the lyrics to every song he’s ever written, from his Sex Pistols days forward.

Fun fact: Lydon says he got his nickname, Johnny Rotten, from the green, decayed teeth he had when recruited for the Sex Pistols.

So for your Friday, here’s a John Lydon and, given the events of the week, Brexit-inspired playlist featuring the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Billy Bragg.

Skip the green beer, I’ll take the music and the craic

Upstairs at Madden's Bar, Belfast.
Upstairs at Madden’s Bar, Belfast.

 

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, a day when Americans of varied ethnicities celebrate an Irish saint by mistaking four-leaf clovers for shamrocks and getting wasted on bad beer dyed an unnatural shade of green.

For most of my adult life this is a day I never paid much attention to. Too many rookie drinkers at the bars here to make it all that much fun. Unless, that is, you’ve got friends playing music at one of those bars, and then the story is different.

One of the things I love about the research trips I make to Northern Ireland is that I’ve come to know and become friends with some astonishingly good traditional Irish musicians.

So in honor of St. Patrick and my friends in Belfast, here are videos of some of the folks I’ve gotten to meet, play a tune, raise a glass, and enjoy the craic¹ with. Ól, ceol, agus craic!²

¹Craic is an Irish word for news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation. In short, good times. Often used with the definitive article — the craic — as in “What’s the craic?” meaning “What’s going on?” or “Enjoying a bit of the craic” meaning a pleasant time out with friends and acquaintances.

²Drink, music, and a good time!

Punks against the Troubles

Image: Ricky Adams/mediadrumworld.com
Image: Ricky Adam/mediadrumworld.com

 

On one of my first research trips to Belfast, back in 2010, I was in a conversation with a fellow about my own age (at the time mid-40s) and the topic turned, as it often does in these circumstances, to what it was like growing up in a place being torn apart by brutal civil violence.

As a working class teenager in the early 1980s living in North Belfast, he was of an age and from a place in which it would have been all too easy to get drawn into the turmoil of the times, winding up with a gun in his hand, probably landing in jail, maybe ending up dead. So I asked him how he managed to stay out of things.

“Simple,” he said, “I was a punk.”

N7J0179 - Duckies Awards Web Badges-2The punks stood apart.

I was reminded of this conversation today when I came across a set of photos taken in one of Belfast’s storied punk venues, a community center called, fittingly, the “Warzone Centre.”  The photos are from a recently published book by photographer Ricky Adams, Belfast Punk, which captures the era as it was drawing to a close.

The Guardian last month posted images from the book, with the photographer giving some commentary and context on each of the shots. In his review of Belfast Punk, writer Mark McConville emphasizes punk culture as a unifying force in a divided city and society:

PUNK is most often associated with anarchy but rare pictures have revealed unifying power of punk culture to bring together those from both sides of the conflict during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Rather than attempted to destroy society as the 1980s anarchists are usually portrayed, stunning images show Catholic and Protestant punks overcoming the problems of their community by mixing amicably and enjoying themselves at a Belfast youth and community centre, appropriately called “the Warzone Centre”.

In a long essay published by the Irish Times last December, Timothy Heron described Northern Ireland’s punk music culture as a nonsectarian common ground that allowed Protestant and Catholic youth to reject the violence and repression that surrounded them:

It is that ‘‘other nation” of ordinary individuals struggling to cope with the pressures of life which is the focus of this paper, or, more accurately, the ordinary youths, many of them school-age teenagers, who took part in an extraordinary musical subculture which helped them construct their everyday lives in the midst of the Troubles in ways which would conflict with and sometimes subvert the codes of the society they lived in: punk.

It is worth remembering that even under the worst conditions, people can often find ways to push back against the circumstances that might otherwise crush their spirits if not their lives.

The video below, for the Stiff Little Fingers (a legendary Belfast punk band formed in 1977 at the height of the Troubles) song “Alternative Ulster,” gives you an idea of what they and the other punks were rebelling against.