Musicking and Sacred Harp
Small’s concept of ritual is strongly applicable to the Sacred Harp tradition. Because we, as singers, are participating in an activity whose most easily-recognizable end product is sound, we think the only potential meaning of the moment of attending a Sacred Harp singing can be to sing. We essentialize the event as a vehicle for producing song. Many neglect to acknowledge that a Sacred Harp singing is a vehicle for numerous other activities. Everyone is there in the same structured moment—Tuesday evening from 7:00pm to 10:00pm—but experiences within that moment can be extremely varied. Different texts and songs have different meanings to different people. One person’s favorite song may be among the least favorites of another. Break time is supposed to be a time for fellowship, but numerous newcomers have complained about the exclusiveness of the singing and the cliques that form and the resulting awkwardness that they may feel during breaks. Singings are often notorious places for gossip to occur, even in the square. And leading from the center of the square demonstrates some kind of competence.
But for all, the singing is a transformative experience, though that transformation may manifest itself in different ways. You may forget about the relationships that are supposed to define you over the course of the week or the month or the year of the decade, and be something of a womanizer, but attending enough singings and hearing those words enough times can bring you back to God. Perhaps in this more folky northern context, it can bring you back to community. For others, the process is not one switch from sinner to saved. It is perhaps forgetting something very important about yourself over the course of the week and being reminded of it every Tuesday. You might even forget why you love to sing and simply be reminded of it when you go sing every Tuesday and every first Sunday and every 2nd Sunday and the Saturday before it in March. Singing dates are decided by formula so that everyone will always know when a particular singing will occur next and can look forward to it the same way every week, month, or year.
Despite its apparent oligarchic nature, hierarchy does exist within the singing, and can often manifest itself in ways that can be difficult to intuit. For example, for some reason, when the time comes to take a break, Don will inform Sheldon and Sheldon will then proceed with the pre-break proceedings. If Sheldon is not present, then Don will inform Linda. I have never been present for a time when neither Sheldon nor Linda has been present, so it is a wonder who the next person on his list would be.
Where a singer sits is telling of that singer’s abilities. There is even a hierarchy when it comes to voice parts. I have heard that the order of importance in descending order is tenor, bass, treble, and alto. But a man singing alto or a woman singing bass, whose sections are usually made up on all women and all men, respectively, must usually be a well-respected member of that community in order to do so. The front row of tenors is the most important, as it is the job of the people sitting there to assist the leader, keeping the class, or the group of singers, together and making sure the class does what the leader wants them to do. They therefore have the most responsibility. The person who is keying the songs at a given time also usually sits on the front tenor bench. But sitting on the front bench of any section is usually telling of skill. This relationship is less fixed at smaller singings where there may only be one or two rows of chairs.
Perhaps the most important people involved in a convention though are the members of the arranging committee, which does not apply to local singings that go around the square or use the system of free call. The arrangers decide when everyone sings, and the order is based on where you live (local singers lead early and singers from far away get the best times), how old you are, and what kind of leader you are. To leading is to perform adeptness and ability. Being a powerful, energetic leader gets you led at good times. And being led at good times adds to the energy. It is one big cycle.
A person may be a fabulous singer and a not-so-great person and be hold the same position as someone ho is just okay but is also an extremely wonderful person. People want to attend the singings of wonderful people, though. For example, Bud Oliver, who makes the best lemonade in the world, has a few singings a year in Pine Grove Church on Lookout Mountain in Alabama every year, and people love to attend his singings because he is a wonderful person in addition to being a wonderful singing. The singing is always good because everyone wants to be there. If visitors do not feel welcome, then they won’t come back. In the same vein, People would not have done what was ostensibly a favor for Kelsey by singing at the breast cancer walk if she weren’t so great to everyone.