March 19, 2005

When I'm Singing, I Know Who I Am

Queen Shenaynay

We Beehive gals went to our community monthly Sacred Harp singing today. My, oh my, "glory shone around," as the old hymn goes. Those two euphoric hours of belting out lofty, sacred words to tunes wrought from strange, ancient notations has again left our cheeks flushed, our cells fully oxygenated for at least a day or two hence. Ah me, there's just nothing like tapping toes in the "hollow square." Puts a buzz in the bones, stirs the soul. Needful stuff, that.

Reminds us who we are... who we really are.

I suppose I could write this entire entry on the restorative joys of zoning into a state of flow through a creative pursuit like Sacred Harp singing, but instead I'm preoccupied just now with why people don't sing like they used to.

In times past, whole communities gathered to sing on weekends; neighbors gathered on porches and in parlors in the evenings. I still find peace in childhood memories of the singing faces of loved ones young and old, faces open and free, at least while the songs lasted. (I especially recall the old men with rafter-ringing tenors and boot-thumping basses -- where have they gone?) It was as though singing together suspended a bridge across our generations, where we traversed in a moment of common grace, where we understood one another... where we knew who we were.

We have it in our blood. Englishmen used to break out in song in pubs -- please tell me they do still? -- serenading the moment with nary a care for vocal finery. The Scots had their ceilidhs -- village gatherings where any who came must be willing to contribute in some way to the evening's entertainment, perhaps with a jig or a strathspey on the highland pipes... aye, but 'twas a hearty folk song t'would bring down the house!

A few still heed the ancestral call. Near my home there's a European deli where Germans and Austrians gather to heartily sing their native folk songs over platters of sausage and sauerkraut, and it's some of the jolliest fun to be had in this metropolitan city on a Friday night! And some weekend nights my daughters and I tiptoe past a corner table at our neighborhood Starbucks where a group of North Africans gathers to all but whisper songs from home under the tireless, tiring drone of piped-in pop music.

They sing to remember who they are, just like I do.

Where are your ancestral songs? Sleeping in your head? In your grandfather's grave? Do we wax too dull to sing, too self-aware to be heard outside the shower? Why?

Singing is now something celebrities do for us. We are perhaps the first generation in human history so removed from personal song, so bereft of the knowledge of that zing in the air, the wisdom of the buzz in the bones, the soul a-stir in song. We are comfortably numb, but only because we don't know what we don't know.

It seeps into churches, inevitably. Most likely your grandparents sang enough, congregationally, to wear out the hymnals stashed in their pew. They knew the zing, the buzz, the stir -- knew it as an old personal friend. Will your children? Your grandchildren? Or will they know no better than to accept being passively entertained by the polished few who make the worship team, perhaps mumbling buzzlessly along to a few easy praise songs?

Will you forfeit your song?
And if you do, will your children sing?
Will they know who they really are if they don't sing?

God created our souls to sing! Really sing. May your children know the incarnational joy of singing till their bones buzz and their souls stir.

Conjure up a world where everyone knows the tingly joy that comes from spontaneously joining in song at unplanned moments in family life. What a happy place. Here in the Beehive, one of us will start humming a hymn melody while washing dishes, another will drift in, grab a drying towel and pick up the alto, a third will get magnetically drawn in to add the missing tenor, and next thing you know it's an hour later and we're all on the sofas with the old hymnals out (and the older the better -- nothing written in about a century can vibrate the old marrow like that old dispersed harmony!). Or one of us will start humming in the car and a couple of miles down the road we're practically shattering the windshield.

If the world is to become a singing place again, it must start with families. Here in the Hive, we're letting it rip. Won't you sing with us?

[For the best hymnal I've ever seen, go here.
For a child-friendly selection of traditional folk songs and classic hymns, see]


TheHeadGirl said...

This is a wonderful post that had me smiling all the way through. Harmonizing is not my forte (a fact you might remember ;-), but there are few things better than a family just singing for the joy of it, or dozens of Christians gathering together for the simple pleasure of making music. I was just wishing yesterday evening how much I wished everybody in the world could at least have a sample of this musical tradition. After the sample they'd be ready for more... I know I always am, even with constant & heavy doses of it. :)

Queen Shenaynay said...

Hi Headgirl! Glad to make you smile this morning.

You'd love Sacred Harp singing -- after the initial shock wore off! Once you figure out the altered staff and 4-shape notation it uses, you're on your way to getting hooked.

You can go to to find out about singings in your area. I warn you, it's highly contagious. Participation is key -- it's much more fun to sing than to merely listen to! When you come see us in July, maybe we can infect you with it. ;-)

TheHeadGirl said...

Our hymnals at church are shape note hymnals; I'll never forget the first time I noticed that. "Hey, mom! Some of these notes are triangles!" Thus was born a (so far) lifelong interest in what made a capella worship different. ;-)

Ha! There is a Sacred Harp singing in a town about 45 minutes away. My poor gas money...

An online friend just got involved in Sacred Harp singing. She generally goes for very heavy instrumentalized arrangements, but she was hooked after listening to the tracks on Cold Mountain and visited her first SH singing last month. She enjoyed herself immensely. Well, duh, who wouldn't?

TheHeadGirl said...

forgot... the staff is different from the ones in the church hymnals, and the seating arrangements look, ah, overwhelming. Should still be fun, though. :)

Queen Shenaynay said...

Headgirl, the Headmistress may have shared this with you, but last June our family was among a group of Sacred Harp singers who had the indescribable thrill of singing the two SH songs from Cold Mountain on stage with all the performers on the CM and Oh, Brother soundtracks, during their Great High Mountain concert tour. It was unbelievable. We stood right at the front of the stage next to Allison Krauss, Ralph Stanley and T-Bone Burnett at Bass Hall, which was sold out -- what a great night that was! We also sang Amazing Grace with Ralph Stanley lining it out in the old way, and Angel Band. The concert was filmed, but it appears they're not planning to release the video like they did for the 'Down From the Mountain' Tour after Oh, Brother. Boo.

TheHeadGirl said...

No, the Deputy Headmistress did not share this information with me. *murmurs of discontent*

In June I wasn't with the family, though, so I missed out on a lot of news.

At any rate, I can only imagine the thrills involved in that concert!

Javamom said...

Well-said, Queen Shenaynay, well-said!

You know I always have a song in my head and heart.

Our family still gets together with our Cambellite friends across the metro area, often monthly, for hymnal singing in one of our homes. My family always did this when I was young, outside of the tri-weekly singing at church.

It still happens at family reunions.

When we go camping with these friends, we belt out songs, even some of the folksongs, around the campfire, day or night, a capella or with guitars/mandolins. I love Barb’ra Allen, Down in the Valley, and others.

When just the husbands, known as the "RCM" (real chile men) go to NM to gather hundreds of pounds of chile in early September, they take their stringed instruments and belt out the OBWAT and other bluegrass and gospel songs around the campfire. Each month, they continue their singing in a local nursing home. It is part of their history together, and what keeps our families together, even though we don't worship together on Sundays. (some of our friends moved too far out to continue the drive, so we all worship in our own suburbs, now).

I would enjoy being able to see the taping of the CM and OB performance/sing-along! Oh to have been there! I *can* imagine it, and how much like a slice of Heaven on Earth it must have been!!


Headmistress, zookeeper said...

I wish I'd said that!=)

Headgirl- sorry- it wasn't last June. It was just last week, during your spring break. I think you were traipsing about Chicago getting kultcha about that time, and, you know, the Headmistress is growing old and forgetful.

lurkeeloo said...

Thank you for reminding me of my childhood of song. It wasn't quite before television, but almost, only three stations. We gathered in folks homes. Usually impromptu. Sometimes even uninvited, we'd just drop in. (Those with phones might call first.) The songbooks would come out, The Harp, Good Old Songs, Old School Hymnal, Daily Hymnal, whatever folks had. A number was called, the pitch given and glorious sound would erupt. Later we sang the handed down songs, not in the songbooks; songs that reflect my families heritage. "Angels Rock Me to Sleep" (I can still hear my mother's alto ringing "in the craaaaaaaaaaaadle of lo- ove") or, "Give Them the Flowers Now" or spirituals like "Amen," "Steal Away," "Oh Lord Show My Feet Which Way to Go." But the old voices are nearly all gone. We who remain don't get together as much, and when we do its sports, politics and kids that dominate the time. I long to sing my families old songs, the way my parents and Uncles and Aunts did. Most of them are singing in Heaven now. They are in the cradle of love. Someday, we'll sing together again.