Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Shapenote in Yorkshire

Here I am in England, having spent last weekend at the UK Sacred Harp convention in Marsden. No, I keep explaining to people, singing shapenote from the Sacred Harp is not a British tradition. No, shapenote in the US is not an archaic remnant of an older British tradition, and I am not returning to the root of the roots. Going to England to sing shapenote is like going to Japan to play Bluegrass.

But the where and the how and the why are not my concern here. They are the wrong questions. What matters is that there are shapenote enthusiasts in England, a variety of them, with differing interests and concerns. Many of them have been my friends for nearly a decade now. Many more are becoming my friends with each trip I make to sing with them (this is my fourth). For whatever this singing offers me, when I sit in a hollow square and look around and sing out, I find this in abundance here far afield. Plus I get the best excuse ever to come to England, and I get an experience unlike that of a stereotypical tourist.

I attended my first UK Sacred Harp convention in 2000, when I was making a lark of a trip to England during a work Sabbatical on frequent-flier miles that by complete coincidence happened to fall at the same time as the convention. Based on various reports that had come across the ocean, I expected a sort of choral or even academic approach to this music, like that of some of the groups in the Northeast US who had explored this music from that angle. And while it's true that I found a style of singing that was more choral than I have found in the southern US, what I mostly found was a group of people who welcomed me like family and who love singing this music and who treated me like an honored guest.

Now, in 2009, the singing in England has changed somewhat. Many of the Brits have spent time in the US, singing this music with its traditional practitioners. They sing out. They sing confidently. They will, on occasion, look you in the eye and communicate with you as you sing. Also they enunciate their consonants. They join you at the pub. They feed you dinner, and tea and cakes at teatime. Any US singer would feel right at home in the singing, and deeply embraced by the singers.

Oh, and plus this year the singing took place among the beautiful sheep-drenched hills of Yorkshire, in an old town of winding streets and historic buildings with a good pub and a coffee shop with good coffee (I was told this is a recent phenomenon, the coffee). I stayed in a bed and breakfast in Elland outside of Huddlesfield, in what had been a coach house in the 19th century, in a comfortable bed in a room with an ensuite shower and a view out my window of tottering brick buildings and glorious countryside beyond.

In short, I did a lot of singing and talked with a lot of people and ate a lot of food and I did all this in a foreign land in a beautiful area and it was a fine, fine time.
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