Toleration and Change
We all love this glorious music, so how
about a bit more flexibility in the matter of the shapes and other
things? Shapes were a good way to make the music accessible to
non-sight-readers, and I'm perfectly agreeable to their use by
those who would like to keep this interesting tradition alive, but
it does get slightly annoying when overly-zealous individuals turn
up their noses at those of us who don't bother to use the shapes.
Is "snobbery" too strong a word?
And then there's what I think of as
tradition-gone-amok. I do a bit of folk music and 4-part gospel
singing and I'm often dealing with groups largely unfamiliar with
Sacred Harp material. I quickly discovered that these potential
converts to the cause had a very difficult time dealing with the
quaint format of the standard Sacred Harp: the verses scattered
all about, the words nowhere near their corresponding notes, the
melody in the tenor, etc. So, to accommodate these singers being
exposed to Sacred Harp for the first time, I went to the trouble
of re-doing a few dozen of the classics, in a choral sheet-music
format with all round-notes and I've had much success with these
improved shapenote-free sheets.
Further, there's the ticklish matter of the
occasional "offensive" verses, those bordering on anti-semitism or
always referring to God as masculine or employing incorrect
theology. ----Eager To Improve
I took your
questions to my philosopher friend, dear Mr. Moadle Shapenoter. He
had the following response:
Those of us who have
come to Sacred Harp from the "outside" face a central question:
How to interact with this tradition that we find ourselves so
fiercely attracted to? Underlying the specifics of
Eager-To-Improve's questions is a general plea to "tolerate" his
taking that part of the tradition that appeals to him and to
alter the rest to better suit his tastes.
This view is shared in part by others. Many
musicians over the generations have admitted the beauty of this
music, "if it were just fixed up," "get rid of those parallel
fifths," "clean up the prosody," "fix the meter," "regularize
those awkward intervals." Older Chicago singers remember the
squareless singing, some singers from San Diego remember the
fight over the alto part, some singers in New England edited the
lyrics (although their theology will likely still be of concern
to others), and many newcomers share a desire to sing the music
in a "pretty" style.
This music and tradition is amazingly (perhaps even
perversely) flexible in its adaptability and it will stand up to
almost anything. I would, however, like to propose that we deal
tolerantly with the existing traditions before, as Ted Johnson
says, we engage in "inventing them" to suit parochial concerns.
A newcomer to Sacred Harp should first be reminded
that they are not participating in a revival of a dead
tradition. This is a way of life that has grown and been finely
honed over the generations, and it is a living community. Its
values ought to be respected in and of themselves as an
authentic part of our past and present.
The hollow square, the shapes, the singing of the
notes before each piece, the singing convention and its rules of
order, the dinner-on-the-ground, the memorial lesson, and the
hospitality. All these strands have been carefully crafted into
a beautiful quilt whoe organic whole transcends its components.
This beauty is not limited to only those within the shadows of
the southern hills, but has proven hardy enough to transplant
well to far distant locales in the North and West.
Perhaps the most telling argument in favor of
perpetuating these traditions involves the importance of
creation and nurture of community. A common and recognizable
vocabulary is vital for the sustenance of communal life. If you
radically restructure your local customs you do so at the
expense of erecting barriers to this larger Sacred Harp
community. Sacred Harp is a growing and slowly changing
radition. I have a practical suggestion for distinguishing
between those changes which belong and those that do not. A
natural change is one that occurs in the context of
communication with the rest of the Sacred Harp community.
To see a specific application of these principles,
let's tackle the question of texts. I will let others debate the
specifics of a text's theology. I am neither qualified by
training nor inclination to discuss them much at that level.
However, within a single book like the Sacred Harp are a wide
range of doctrinal views. It has long been tradition to leave
theological differences at the door of a singing. All can come
together in an atmosphere free from doctrinal examination and
just sing the songs they love. Given the times in which this
particular tradition originated, the scope of this
accomplishment cannot be overstated.
It is possible for text changes to be made in a way
that reflects individual and local needs and doesn't damage our
connection with the community at large -- both past and present.
Create new songs in the old style, or new verses. Cast them into
the river and accept the judgment of the larger community and of
time. This slow, gradual and uncertain method to affirm and
uphold will guarantee that the heart and spirit of the tradition
survives the changes created.
We live in a time when some doubt the long-time
survival of these traditions; a time when their rural health is
fragile. It is especially because of the vulnerability of these
wonderful traditions that those of us who adopt them may do so
with a vigor that is viewed by some as "impolite" or
"intolerant." There is an easy way to find an answer to your
question. Go to a traditional singing. Experience for yourself
Sacred Harp in full cry. Then compare it to pallid imitation
"improved" forms. You will find why so many insist on the real
thing. --Moadle Shapenoter
Thank you, dear friend. Your response reminds me of something dear
G. K. Chesterton once said: "Tradition
means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our
ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to
submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely
happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being
disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to
their being disqualified by the accident of death.
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