Tag Archive | shape note

The 30th Annual Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention

This past weekend I drove up to the Twin Cities for the 30th Annual Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention. I’ve managed to attend this convention a couple of times in grad school–last year with Isabelle, in 2014 when Sparkers came out–thanks to UCLA’s late start to the academic year, but it’s certainly easier to drive up from Iowa than to fly from California. I didn’t know it was the 30th annual singing until I arrived. Turns out the first Minnesota convention took place the year I was born!

The first day, we sang at Olivet Congregational Church in St. Paul, not far from St. Sahag’s, home of my local shape note singing the year I lived in the Summit-University neighborhood. I also vaguely recalled having gone to an English country dance at Olivet UCC that year, and Midge, a fellow singer and dancer and one of the convention’s co-chairs, confirmed that the Playford ball was held there. I led 203 Florida in the morning.

During the breaks, I caught up with Ivy, a fellow linguist now in the Twin Cities. We first met as prospective students at UCLA. I also met an ethnomusicologist who came to the convention from Winnipeg but who lived in Georgia for a year and a half studying the language and the music! Where else do you meet Georgian music singers than at the Sacred Harp convention, I guess. I also “networked” with other Iowa singers; there are a number of us scattered throughout the state. There aren’t any regular singings very close to me, but at least there’s an all-day in the spring to look forward to.

Local singer Claudia had put together a mini-exhibit of six old shape note tunebooks which were on display Saturday morning in the church library. The oldest was a copy of The Easy Instructor from 1816, I believe. There were also two books in German (or bilingual in English and German), printed in Fraktur! One of them was Die Franklin Harmonie. I didn’t know shape note tunebooks in other languages existed; these were apparently used by the Pennsylvania Dutch. As I was looking at the books, another singer noticed my name tag said Grinnell, and she told me she used to hitchhike to Grinnell, passing through Austin, MN, to visit her best friend, who studied at the college.

Shape notes and Fraktur! (Excuse the shadow…)

On Sunday, we sang at The Landing, on the Minnesota River. Last year, I was there with Isabelle. At the end of lunch and at the following break, the ethnomusicologist, Midge and her husband (both Georgian singing aficionados, who’ve visited the country multiple times and who brought Zedashe to the Twin Cities), one other singer, and I attempted to sing a Mravalzhamier we all knew. It was rocky, but it was still lovely to at least try some Georgian polyphony at the convention!

I led 296 Sardinia, in the afternoon. At the end of the day, the co-chairs, as is customary, invited out-of-town singers to invite everyone to major singings in their parts of the country. A singer from Kentucky, who I knew I’d seen before, made such an announcement, and in it he mentioned the opportunity to experience an Old Regular Baptists’ service with lined-out hymnody. Somebody else said that alone was worth the trip. I had never heard of such a thing and wasn’t even sure I’d heard right until I looked it up later. I’m still not totally clear what lined-out hymnody is, but Wikipedia tries to explain. Shape note seems positively mainstream compared to this.

After the convention was over, I wandered around The Landing a little bit, like we had last year. I walked past the schoolhouse and around behind the barn to see if the cows we’d seen last year were in the enclosure, but instead of cows I found three sheep!

Summer’s End in Minnesota

At the end of my summer, which for the rest of the world is mid-to-late September, I went to Minnesota and brought Isabelle along. We visited the cats at Wild Rumpus in Linden Hills.

We stumbled upon the Highpoint Center for Printmaking on Lake Street and saw the juried print exhibition and Michael Kareken’s black-and-white watercolor monotypes of majestic forests in the Pacific Northwest.

With my brother, we visited Minneapolis’s first cat café, Café Meow! We met a very sweet cat named Oreo.

Photo by Isabelle

We saw Minnehaha Falls in its late summer glory.

We attended the second day of the 29th Annual Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention, again at The Landing, and I led 547 Granville.

On our last day, we took a walk in my neighborhood and found this:

July News

There’s a profile of me in the summer issue of the Swarthmore alumni magazine, which you can check out here. Lunar French and hammered dulcimers!

I’m in Minnesota at the moment. I came home just in time to protest our congressman at the 4th of July parade in my town. We were planning to stand on the parade route in matching purple t-shirts waving Healthcare is a right for all signs, but then word came that our famously absent congressman had not actually shown up to march in the parade despite being listed in the program! So instead we swarmed the street and marched in his place, in front of Keith Ellison and his supporters. I didn’t wake up on the morning of Independence Day expecting to wind up on the evening news, but sometimes it happens. I seem to be making something of a habit of this; several years ago a photo of me protesting our state senator at the 4th of July parade wound up on the front page of the Star Tribune.

Last Saturday I went to the 3rd Minnesota Shenandoah Harmony All-Day singing in Minneapolis. The Shenandoah Harmony is the newest shape note tunebook, sometimes called the wicker book for the color of its cover. I have my own copy, but I don’t know the songs well at all, so I didn’t lead. It was good to see lots of familiar faces, though (someone told me to finish my dissertation quickly so I could get back to writing children’s books), and I got recruited to be the resolutions committee, which meant at the business meeting at the end of the singing I thanked everyone who had helped organize it and “resolved” that we do it again next year. The Shenandoah Harmony has some good stuff in it, including this arrangement of “Hicks’ Farewell” that ends on glorious open fifths!

The 29th Annual All-California Sacred Harp Convention

After attending the 26th in Los Angeles and the 27th in the Bay Area, I missed last year’s All-California Sacred Harp Convention in San Diego, but the convention returned to LA this year, and I went! It was once again at Angels Gate in San Pedro, in the Friends meetinghouse-like building on the hilltop overlooking the Pacific. Saturday, the first day of the convention, was very clear, so you could see Catalina Island and what I was told was San Miguel Island, though having now looked at a map I’m not so sure. In any case, it was beautiful!

I went to my last two All-Cals with my friend Leland; this time, my friend Ames (also of the Swarthmore shape note/folk dance set) came down from Portland to go to the convention with me! He arrived in time for Datvebis Gundi’s inaugural rehearsal of 2017. Ames has in fact been on a singing trip to Georgia, so, you know, all the cults intersect.


Ames and me on the muddy hilltop, with the ocean and the Marine Mammal Care Center (think barking sea lions) in the background

On Saturday morning, just before the singing was to begin, Elaine, a singer from San Diego, told me she was going to try to see the SpaceX rocket launch. Intrigued, I followed her outside, picking up Ames along the way. According to Elaine, the launch was scheduled for 9:54am. We positioned ourselves on the hilltop and looked northwest up the coastline toward Santa Barbara, where the rocket was launching from. At one point, I saw a small red and blue object (like a Southwest plane?) moving horizontally across the blue sky until it vanished. I mentioned this, and Elaine wondered if that was it. But then I spotted a small white object, sort of bullet-shaped, rising vertically above the land to the northwest. Its location and trajectory seemed more plausible. I pointed this out, and eventually a contrail appeared below, along the upward path the rocket had taken. Because this was definitely the rocket! It began to arc southward, and eventually I lost sight of it. But we caught the rocket launch!

On Saturday afternoon, Isabelle and Adeline from the department stopped by the singing, and Brice, also from the department, came all day on Sunday, so UCLA Linguistics was awfully well-represented at the convention. And funnily enough, who should I run into on Saturday morning but Linnea, the person who taught the Georgian yodeling workshop Isabelle and I went to at the Machine Project last summer! I didn’t know she did shape note singing too, but I was not surprised.

I’m preparing to defend my dissertation prospectus in a few weeks, so if this blog goes silent, that’s why. But hopefully I’ll be able to come up for air now and then.

Poetics of Location

Two Sundays ago, my friend Isabelle and I went on a walking tour of Downtown LA with Mike Sonksen, a.k.a. Mike the Poet, who recently published a chapbook called Poetics of Location. The tour began at the Central Library of Los Angeles, a place both of us had been curious to see but had yet to visit. We arrived a bit early and went inside to see the mosaics and (very colonialist) murals in the soaring rotunda. Then we joined a handful of other tour participants outside the library’s north entrance. Mike greeted us and presented us with our signed copies of his new book.

The first stop on the tour was in fact the library, but this time we used the grand entrance on the west side of the building. My favorite part of the library was the steps outside this entrance, which were inscribed with phrases in various languages (English at various stages of its development, French, Korean, Chinese, and Esperanto, among many others), as well as the digits of pi, an integral, a passage of music, and much more.

Once we left the library, Mike the Poet proceeded to regale us with tidbits about the various buildings in the neighborhood. These included the Library Tower, once the tallest skyscraper in LA; the Biltmore Hotel; and the Gas Company Tower. He made scads of movie references that I didn’t get. He also told us about the literary history of LA, reading to us from John Fante in John Fante Square (just an intersection next to the Gas Company Tower) and telling us about Carey McWilliams in Pershing Square.

The tour was punctuated by Mike’s performances of some of his own poems, as well as performances and readings by his poet friends who also came on the tour. There was F. Douglas Brown, whom I’d heard at the Mixed Remixed Festival earlier this year; the brother and sister pair Dante and Monique Mitchell; and one of Mike’s students, a high school senior.

The tour took us through part of the Jewelry District, past movie palaces and a vaudeville hall, and into the charming St. Vincent’s Court. It ended at the Last Bookstore, a famous independent bookstore I’d wanted to visit for ages, mostly to see its iconic book arches (they’re like flying buttresses!). It did not disappoint. The place was a warren of books. In the center of the ground floor, there was a low stage surrounded by leather furniture oozing stuffing. We gathered here for a last reading. Mike, Dante, Monique, and F. Douglas Brown all performed more poems. Monique’s was inspired by the Valley of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel.

After the reading, Isabelle and I wandered the bookstore for a good while. I began in the music section, where I found one of Cecil Sharp’s collections of English folk songs and the complete scores of Handel’s concerti grossi (I did not buy either). In the children’s section, I found Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale, which I’d heard a lot of great things about. So of course I picked it up. (But I’m still reading Dream of Red Mansions! Will it never end!) Upstairs, there was science fiction, fantasy, foreign languages, and much more, as well as the famous book arches! There are also galleries, studios, and shops on the second floor, including a yarn shop that was, alas, closed. Several artists’ work was exhibited in the narrow corridors. There were a bunch of painted wooden whales hanging on one wall. I particularly liked the illustrations by kAt Philbin. The artist bio said her work was reminiscent of Edward Gorey’s. I’m a Gorey fan, and I could see the resemblance in some of the pieces.

When I got home, I looked up the Last Bookstore and noticed that there was going to be a cello concert there the next day. Steuart Pincombe, a cellist with whom I wasn’t familiar, was going to be playing three of the Bach cello suites. Sadly, I couldn’t go to the concert, but I learned that Steuart Pincombe once had a project called What Wondrous Love Is This? in which he and other musicians played and sang early American music, including the shape note tunes Wondrous Love, Restoration, Ecstasy, and Russia, in a hollow square (the way shape note singers sit)! For that I would’ve gone all the way back to the Last Bookstore for the second time in as many days.

Gaping Graves, Summer Doldrums

The blog’s been quiet because my July has been pretty quiet. I spend my days looking for a dissertation topic and wrestling with Efik data in the air-conditioned Phonetics Lab and my evenings drafting what I hope will be my next book after Wildings. This time a year ago I was playing music in the mountains at Camp Kiya, and I kind of wish I were there again this year…

I’ve been listening obsessively to Nightingale’s album Three. I learned to play the reel Mariposa (third tune on Track 3) on fiddle and went down a few French/French Canadian music rabbit holes. It never ceases to amaze me how rife French songs are with roses and nightingales. Also, does anyone else think Nightingale’s intro to The Flying Tent (third tune on Track 6) sounds just like the beginning of “Heaven on Their Minds” from Jesus Christ Superstar?

A couple of friends of mine are on a Midwestern road trip, and they told me they were listening to Sparkers as they traversed Minnesota in my honor! Not only that, but one of them, a shape note singer, let me know when they got to “gaping graves.” This phrase is a tiny nod to The Sacred Harp buried somewhere in the book, and as far as I can recall this is the first time a shape note singer has told me they found it!


The Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest

I devoted most of last weekend to musical activities. Saturday was the LA Regional All-Day Singing at Angels Gate in San Pedro. Many songs were sung, the requisite photos of the Korean Friendship Bell were taken, and Robert’s rules of order were much abused. We had visiting singers from Colorado and Georgia!

On Sunday, the LA Sacred Harp singers held workshops at the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest & Folk Festival, which is…exactly what the name says. You can compete in different levels on fiddle, banjo, voice, and other instruments, or you can just listen to music, jam, dance, and check out the vendors and exhibitors. In the morning, I got a ride to the festival with two Sacred Harp singers who have been involved in the LA folk scene since the 1970s. One of them called herself a lifelong folkie and talked about Pete Seeger (!) performing at her Jewish camp (?) way back when.

The festival was held at Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains. I found out at the regional singing that the festival site was a Western movie set and that we would be singing in Chin’s, the Chinese laundry. Okay, then.


This is the building in which we sang. There was nothing identifying it as the Chinese laundry, though it was called Chin’s in the festival program.


It really was a Western movie set though.

We did three hours of singing: a one-hour workshop with explicit teaching, a one-hour workshop for which the ostensible theme was “minor key tunes mentioning death” (contrary to popular belief, this does not in fact encompass all Sacred Harp tunes), and a one-hour regular singing. A decent number of festival attendees dropped by to listen and even to sing.



I had brought along my thrift shop fiddle on the off chance that I’d have the opportunity to do some jamming. I left the death-themed workshop early to catch the second half of the Scottish Fiddlers of LA’s performance in the Eucalyptus Grove. When I reached the grove, they were about to start a set of two jigs. I recognized the director, whose Welsh fiddle class I was in at Camp Kiya last summer, as well as a couple other members who also went to camp. To my astonishment, after the jigs, they played the exact same set of four Welsh tunes we performed at the campers’ concert at the end of Camp Kiya! I’d left my fiddle in Chin’s; otherwise, I would’ve been tempted to join in.


The Scottish Fiddlers of LA playing Welsh tunes! You can barely see the guy in the kilt and St. Andrew’s cross sporran playing the bass clarinet…

They closed with a pair of waltzes, and then I went to say hi to the director and one of the other fiddlers I met at camp last year. It turned out they were about to start a fiddlers’ jam right there in the Eucalyptus Grove. I was torn, since the regular Sacred Harp singing was about to begin. I walked back to Chin’s, but then I decided to grab my fiddle and return to the jam session for a handful of tunes. I figured it might be my only chance to play with anyone (and I was right).

They were playing the Swallowtail Jig when I returned, so I joined in on that. Then they switched to Morrison’s Jig, which I also knew. The next few tunes I didn’t know and couldn’t really pick up by ear fast enough to play properly. Then one of the fiddlers suggested Road to Lisdoonvarna, except suddenly she couldn’t remember how it began. By some miracle, I managed to pull the first phrase out of my memory, and then we were off. I’m not sure if I’d ever played that tune on violin before; I definitely had on cello. Anyway, if this jam session taught me anything, it’s that I know tunes in E minor (or E dorian). After Road to Lisdoonvarna, I headed back to the singing.

There was a brief contra dance late in the afternoon that I went to, but it wasn’t anything special. What was special was this hurdy-gurdy trio that played for hours in a pavilion tucked away near the saloon! One of the hurdy-gurdyists let some guy turn the crank of his instrument for one tune, and throughout the day I kept dropping by in hopes that they’d let me try to play a hurdy-gurdy. Alas, they did not offer.



Captain Kidd’s Wondrous Jacobites

Yes, it’s another song connections post! At this point, this should probably be a formal blog series/feature, except each post is lazier than the last.

I recently encountered the song “Ye Jacobites by Name,” and as I listened to it, it struck me that it sounded like “Captain Kidd.” You can read a bit about this piratical song here and listen to Tempest’s rock version here. (Funnily enough, one of Wikipedia’s “Selected recordings” of “Captain Kidd” is… Owen Hand’s “Ye Jacobites by Name.” The Wikipedia page for “Ye Jacobites by Name” says nothing about “Captain Kidd.”)

Now, I first heard of “Captain Kidd” when someone told me it was the “same” as the shape note tune “Wondrous Love” (known as a hymn to many non-shape note singers). So by transitivity “Ye Jacobites by Name” = “Wondrous Love.”

As it happens, someone else has already done all the genealogical research into the history of these songs. You can read all about “Ye Jacobites by Name,” “Captain Kidd,” “Wondrous Love,” and much more here.


“Captain Kidd” in The Shenandoah Harmony

And speaking of shape note tunes, the newest shape note book, The Shenandoah Harmony, has a song in it called “Captain Kidd.” The text, however, is not “My name is Captain Kidd, as I sailed, as I sailed,” but rather “Thro’ all the world below, God is seen all around.” You can listen to the Shenandoah Harmony tune here.

A Personal History of Singing

If you had told me five or ten years ago that I would one day sing a solo in a choir concert, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Yet I did exactly that last Thursday, at Datvebis Gundi’s first formal concert. As you may recall, Datvebis Gundi, or the UCLA Kartvelian Chorus, is my linguistics department’s unofficial choir.

The run-up to the concert was a little more stressful than I would have liked, not because I was nervous but because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to perform at all. The Sunday before the concert, I suddenly developed a sore throat so dramatic I half-convinced myself I was coming down with epiglottitis (being a linguist, I know where my epiglottis is and why an inflamed one would be bad, and not just for singing). At our dress rehearsal on Tuesday, it was neither advisable nor very possible for me to sing, so I just stood where I was supposed to for every song and followed along in my lyrics sheets while the rest of the choir rehearsed. Luckily, my throat recovered by Thursday, so nobody had to pinch hit for me.

Our concert was part of the Fowler Out Loud series and was held among palms and cycads in the interior courtyard of the Fowler Museum of Culture History at UCLA. We performed nineteen songs, including lullabies, toasting songs, a lament, and three Alilos, which are Christmas songs. Most of the texts were in Georgian, but some were in Svan, Megrelian, or Laz, the other Kartvelian languages. My solos (and by solo I mean a call in a call-and-response song) were in Mamli Mukhasa, a song about an oak tree that symbolizes Georgia, and Ocheshkhvei, a Megrelian work song and the only song we performed from written music. And I pulled those solos off, even though not that long ago I would never have consented to sing any kind of solo in a concert.

Datvebis Gundi

That’s me to the left of center in the dark red shirt.

For most of my life, I didn’t consider myself to be someone who had a good voice. This wasn’t something that bothered me; it was just something I believed about myself. I guess I liked to sing, but I didn’t sing in choirs for years and years the way some people who meet me nowadays assume. My choir participation was more sporadic.

The elementary school I attended for fourth and fifth grade had an excellent extracurricular choir that I joined. (Our elementary school’s regular music program was pretty impressive too: we learned to ring handbells and play gamelan.) I still remember some of the songs I learned in that choir. I also sang in my church’s children’s choir, which went through sixth grade. Singing in a choir was fine because I could blend in with many voices, but I would never have dreamed of, say, trying out for the school talent show with a song, and I knew no one was ever going to pick me to sing a solo.

After I graduated from the church children’s choir, I didn’t sing in another choir until ninth grade, when I joined the youth choir of the American Church in Paris. I actually showed up at the first rehearsal because I wanted to play in the youth handbell choir, but the youth choir and the youth handbell choir were one and the same, and as I soon found out they did a lot more singing than ringing. But I stayed in it because it was wonderful. The girls (it was almost all girls) came from all over the world. Almost everyone spoke English and French, but a few only one or the other, and many people spoke more languages besides. I remember that we started off the year with two songs from the immensely popular movie Les Choristes: Vois Sur Ton Chemin and In Memoriam. At the end of my family’s semester in Paris, I brought my choir music back to the U.S. with me. Eventually, Vois Sur Ton Chemin became the first piece I did an instrumental arrangement of for my friends to play. (According to some of them, it’s the only piece we ever managed to make sound good.)

It was around the time we lived in France that I discovered I could sing alto parts out of the hymnal even as most of the congregation around me sang the melody in unison. My success at picking out the part varied according to the hymn, but I kept practicing because it made singing more interesting. I think this is how I became reasonably good at sightreading.

I was only in the American Church choir for four months, and upon my return I didn’t sing regularly in another choir until, well, I joined the Georgian chorus a little over a year ago. That’s a nine-year hiatus. Of course, I didn’t spend those nine years not singing. Because in college, I discovered Sacred Harp. (Oh, no! you’re thinking. Not another post about shape note singing! Surely you knew where this was headed!)

One of the things that appealed to me about Sacred Harp singing, besides the harmonies and the intense texts, was the idea that you didn’t need a “good” voice to sing it. The style of singing is distinctive; I’ve heard it called “open-throated”. It’s supposed to be loud. (Actually, Georgian singing, at least the way I’ve been doing it, is kind of similar.) Moreover, it’s a participatory tradition: ordinarily shape note music is not performed because the point is to sing for ourselves. Anyone can, and is in fact encouraged to, join in. Many singers I met as I was starting out did not have what I thought of as “good” voices, though their voices were certainly powerful.

Sacred Harp is without a doubt what gave me confidence in my ability to sing. I learned just how good a sightreader I was and probably improved a lot too. I may not be the loudest alto at any given singing, but people tell me they like to sit beside me because I sing all the right notes. Gradually, I came to think of myself as a good singer. Not necessarily one with a beautiful voice, whatever that means, but in shape note singing that mostly doesn’t matter. If it weren’t for Sacred Harp, I’m not sure I’d be in Datvebis Gundi today. (Maybe I still would be, because really, who can resist Georgian music?) I’m sure I would have balked at being assigned solos for the concert. But instead, I thought, Sure, I can do that.

The 27th Annual All-California Sacred Harp Convention

I spent the long weekend in San Francisco at the All-California Sacred Harp Convention. It was my second time attending this convention in as many years. The All-California rotates between Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego; it was in Los Angeles last year.


Wrong state, I know, but I picked one of these up in Minnesota in December and can’t resist sharing it. That is a shape note bumper sticker on my cello case, because I don’t have a car.

I rode up to the Bay Area in a small carpool from Los Angeles. We took Route 101, and a lot of the drive was quite picturesque. California has a lot of hills. We saw cows, horses, sheep, goats, and alpacas on green slopes, drove through clouds, and occasionally caught an ocean vista.

San Francisco is a beautiful city, one I’d like to spend more time in someday. I stayed with a friend from college, a fellow shape note singer and linguist. The convention itself was in Alameda, in a park recreation center. It was a big crowd, over two hundred singers, and the singing was excellent. On Saturday, I led the tune Clamanda (whose text appears in disguised form in Ancillary Justice!), and on Sunday, I led Plenary (which has the same melody as Auld Lang Syne). Multiple people at the convention seemed to know of me as a linguist, which I found slightly curious.

A funny side effect of shape note singing is that seemingly random numbers start to take on meaning. A leader announces the tune she’s going to lead by calling out the song’s page number, and Sacred Harp songs are generally referred to by both their tune name and their number. The more singings you attend, the more tune numbers you start to have memorized. So for example, on the journey home, we stopped at a Trader Joe’s to get a few things for lunch. When I saw $3.68 on my receipt, I thought, Huh, that’s 368 Stony Point. Also, back when I was revising (mostly shortening) Book 2 at the end of last year, I tracked the downward progress of my manuscript’s page length by Sacred Harp tunes. I remember passing through 270 pages, which corresponds to Confidence (“Away my unbelieving fear…” I can totally edit this book down!).

An account of my weekend wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the food. At the dinners on the grounds, there was key lime pie and chicken mole and butternut squash risotto and what seemed like half a dozen pans of macaroni and cheese, among many other dishes. At his house, my friend fed me homemade soft pretzels and apple pie, and on Sunday evening we visited another college friend of ours (my fellow co-president of Folk Dance Club, whom I hadn’t seen since we graduated) and we all made crêpes with sweet potato and spinach and ricotta fillings.

Anyway, I’ll have Sacred Harp songs swirling through my head for days, I expect. I hope to be in San Diego next year!