One of the first indications I had of this phenomenon came when Kelly Beard, an elderly traditional singer from the south, came to our convention in Minnesota many years ago. When I introduced myself to him he said that he had seen me a couple of years previous at the Midwest Convention in Chicago. He then leaned over and, pointing at me, said, "You led Natick in four!" He sort of giggled about that as he repeated it: "You led Natick in four."
Well, of course I led Natick in 4. It has a melody line that, in a couple of places, moves on the fourth beat of the measure. You lose the near syncopatic feeling when you sing the piece in a steady 2, as is tradition and as its composer (Glenn Wright, with whom I sang in Boston 20 years ago) leads it. Glenn likes things springy and fast.
At the time I was tremendously impressed that Kelly would remember something so specific, one song out of scores at one singing out of hundreds several years previous. But now? Now I can tell you exactly how Darlene Dalton called in the altos four years ago at our convention. I can tell you how high one tenor-voiced visitor pitched Exhortation seven years ago. I can tell you what Linda Thomas led in the Wootten living room one night a decade or so ago, and what she said to introduce the song.
It's not a question of remembering everything everybody led and how, not at all. It's a question of being receptive and open and embracing of wonderful key moments in a singing, which are so vivid that they are, by definition, memorable. Kelly didn't remember everything everybody led in Chicago three years previously (only Don Bowen can do that); he remembered hearing a piece he knew led in a different way that seemed counter to expectation but which he liked.
That's what draws me to Sacred Harp singings: At their best, they are compendiums of glorious moments. The moments might come during a song, or over lunch, or while setting up in the morning. But they mostly come while singing, while looking at the other singers, while collectively raising the rafters with sound.
There were many moments at this year's Minnesota State Convention a few weeks back, mostly involving some powerful times on the front bench. But there were other, smaller ones, and here's one I think on and smile about.
When I'm taking a break from the front bench I sometimes like to stand up in the back, walking around a bit, singing with others who are standing around the edges. On Saturday afternoon I was standing next to my friend Tim, who is a Morris dance friend who very occasionally sings shapenote. Tim has a sweet baritone voice and many times over the years he has sung a bass part to my melody, when singing various folkie things over a glass of beer. But in recent years Tim has started to enjoy singing a high harmony over the melody. And so he has taken to singing the lead (tenor) line in shapenote. Somebody called the Billings piece Africa, which has a bass line I enjoy. So I stood right up next to Tim and sang the bass line to his tenor line and we just wallowed in delight. There is one particular place in that song where the bass and tenor lines are moving together at the very very top of their ranges (bass, I think, soars up around an E while tenors swoop around a G, although we rarely key quite up to written pitch). There we were, moving along together -- me, for the first time in my memory, singing under Tim rather than over him -- which was great fun because, timbrewise, I sound like a tenor and he sounds like a bass/baritone, although our actual ranges are pretty similar. It was SO MUCH FUN that I thought we'd burst from pleasure.
It was the sound within us. It was the sound around us. It was our friendship. It was our friends. It was the time of day. It was the sequence of the day's events. It was the words (Now shall my inward joys arise and burst into a song; almighty love inspires my heart and pleasure tunes my tongue). It was a glorious moment.
Just one of many.