Thursday, August 22, 2013

Report from the Field: The Chattahoochee Musical Convention

photo: John Kelso

On the Saturday preceding the first Sunday in August, I found my way to Wilson's Chapel a few miles south of Carrolton, Georgia for the Chattahoochee Musical Convention. As Wikipedia will tell you, this is "the oldest surviving Sacred Harp musical convention, having been founded in 1852."

I couldn't find much information online other than it took place in August on "First Sunday and Saturday before - Chattahoochee Musical Convention, Wilson Chapel, Southeast of Carrollton GA. Turn left off Hwy A-27 at Cross Plains Rd. to church." So you can imagine my relief when I saw the sign that said "sing" at the entrance to a gravel road. And sing they did!

There were a good number of singers filling the wooden pews in the wood paneled sanctuary of Wilson's chapel. Three window AC units hummed and the ceiling fans whirled signaling just how warm they expected it to get.

I wasn't new to the idea of shape-note singing, but this was my first time at a sing. "Well you chose a good one." more than one of the participants said with a shake of their heads. They were clearly thinking "rookie!" The first problem I had was that I had never been to a shape-note singing school and so I hadn't learned how to sing the notes -- an important skill as the first run through any hymn the participants sing the names of the notes. These names--signalled by the shape of the note--correspond to their relative intervals (not their place in the scale). If Julie Andrews had sung Sacred Harp, the Sound of Music would have been very different. Fa would have been a deer as well as a long way to run, sol would be a drop of golden sun and a needle pulling thread, and la would be the name she called herself as well as a note to follow sol. Perhaps what might have proven most confusing for the Von Trapp progeny is that mi is now a drink with jam and bread!


That's how I felt.

As I sight-read my part, I started singing the notes to "ha" and hoped the basses around me assumed I had a speech impediment. I added one shape at a time (I started with "la") and after about 40 minutes, through a feat of concentration that made my brain sweat, I had it good enough for the slow passages--I never did manage the fast runs.

We started singing at 9:30 in the morning and sang for four hour-long blocks with a break before the last one for lunch. Over this period we managed to sing EIGHTY-SEVEN hymns - that is approximately twenty-two hymns per hour (22 hph). This is a fantastic feat of vocal endurance for your average choir -- but this is no average bunch of singers -- they sing at the TOP of their lungs from the first la to the last fa. I had decided that I was not going to record anything or take notes - I was just going to experience the sing. The fact is that the hymns came so fast and my concentration level was so high, that I barely had time to raise my eyes from the pages of the hymnbook. But I broke my vow just once when someone stepped forward and called "417." This hymn -- Weeping Pilgrim-- is an unusual tune as it changes time signature and tempo between the verses and the refrain. It should be noted that the singing here is more restrained than for many of the 87 hymns we sang that day.

Over lunch I met John Kelso, a talented photographer and keen singer from Atlanta. He has a remarkable series of photographs of Sacred Harp singers he has titled "I want to die shouting."

Dinner on the grounds of Wilson Chapel

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