In 1994 I wrote an account of my first trip south to sing shapenote for the fasola mailing list (then in its infancy and not widely read). The experience of the trip was a powerful one for me, and I spent a good deal of time trying to capture it in words. For the subject line I pulled a line fragment from one of the songs in the Sacred Harp: "Celestial Fruit on Earthly Ground". (All men of grace have found; Glory begun below; Celestial fruit on earthly ground; From faith and hope may grow.) In retrospect I think it's not a bad essay, as descriptions of spiritual intensity go, and it was helped tremendously by the initial feedback of my friend Keith Willard, who advised me to remove some explanatory text I originally included about where my own beliefs differ from those of the musical text -- and to leave simply the emotional description. This made for a much better essay, but it had the interesting result that lots of people, over the years, have read their own beliefs into what I wrote and they tell me how beautifully I captured them. In other words: I said nothing at all, and people seemed to feel I said a good deal.
In a way this was accidental.
What was also accidental is that, in form, I seemed to have stumbled upon a standard Christian narrative of redemption through grace, or at least that's my paraphrasing of what my southern friend Mr. Johnny Lee told me once. Mr. Johnny, in my presence, was praising my piece to somebody, and telling the story of how he read it at the deathbed of an elderly relative and how it brought a tear to his eye (this happened before I met Mr. Johnny). Other embarrassing praise was heaped upon me (the piece was used as a sermon in some Primitive Baptist churches, I found out, and it was reprinted in a few Sacred Harp local newsletters), until finally I couldn't take it and I said that this was all very flattering but really, I didn't understand why this little article I wrote would cause so much fuss. That's when Mr. Johnny explained about the narrative tradition of grace through spiritual redemption, and how I had given people a framework into which they could plug their own emotions and experience.
I wish I could bottle that wisdom and do it again. But I think it was a one-shot deal.
In 1997 a man named John Bealle wrote a scholarly post-Modern work on the Sacred Harp tradition called "Public Worship, Private Faith". One large section of the book is about the tradition of writing about the Sacred Harp and the singing experience, and how modern revivalists like me differ in their approach from the folklorists of yore in our willingness, even eagerness, to participate emotionally. He quotes my essay at great length. Interestingly, he spells my name as "Stephen" and it took me a while to detective that out. What I remembered is that at the time I wrote the essay the Sacred Harp singers in Chicago were putting out an ambitious, quirky, and delightful newsletter that served in some ways as a national forum. I got a call from Judy Hauff in Chicago about wanting to include my piece, but she was not online and did not have a copy and the deadline was the next day -- so I read it to her over the phone, sentence by sentence, while she transcribed it. And then published it under the name "Stephen Levine". This must be what Dr. Bealle used as his source.
Now a woman named Kathryn Eastburn, who is a journalist in Colorado, has just published a sort of memoir book called "A Sacred Feat: Reflections on Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground". I have only just received my copy and have not read it yet, but a quick scan impresses me greatly. She divides the book into chapters focusing on different singings in different areas of the country, and concludes each chapter with recipes. It seems to be a clear and charming book. I spend a lot of time trying to explain what this music and tradition is and what appeal it holds for me, and based on my reading so far I would be quite comfortable just saying, "Here, read this book" instead.
Even if I weren't a character in it.
I met Ms. Eastburn two years ago this week at the annual singing convention in Hoboken Georgia organized by my friends the Lees (whom I mention above). She devotes one chapter to her experiences in Hoboken, and we first come across me at the open house gathering at David and Kathy Lee's house the night before the singing:
Inside, a crowd of guests from Minnesota and Maine, Indiana and Texas has gathered to sing a few tunes before tomorrow's one-day convention. Tom Owen is here from Texas, and I recognize a few others. Kathy Lee sets out bowls of chips and dip as she talks busily with Steven Levine, a northern singer with a long black braid down his back who might be Kathy's brother or cousin for all their comfortable familiarity...
I really am quite touched by that observation. From my perspective, it is absolutely true, but I wouldn't expect a stranger to see it.
Later in the chapter she describes the singing itself, and my character comes back in during the singing of "Beautiful River":
I catch sight of Steven Levine and can hear his voice, quavering and nasal, above the others. He sings so hard his chest expands and his shoulders ride up and down.
Perhaps I could live without the "quavering and nasal", but really this is quite good and a blush comes to my face when I read this. She goes on:
At breakfast at the motel in Waycross, Levine told me about a piece he'd written twelve years ago, "Celestial Fruit on Earthly Ground," when he first came south for a Sacred Harp singing...
I suppose I did -- but likely because we were talking about our first experiences with traditional singers, and what she was writing her book about, and it seemed a natural enough thing to mention. In any case, she goes on to summarize the article for a couple of paragraphs (quite well, this woman really is a reporter) and notes an agreement with some things I wrote and concludes with this:
The emotional release available at singings in the South is something Levine still treasures and for which he travels to places like Hoboken year in and year out. As I watch him across the square, I can see him letting go, his long black braid swinging behind his back in time to the music.
I think she nails something there. I really am quite touched.