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Toleration and Change

notes fa sol la Dear Miss Grace Notes: 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 Sacred Harp

image of Miss Grace Notes Gentle Singer: 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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