Tag Archive | shape note

All About Bach

Last Saturday, I attended the UCLA Early Music Ensemble’s fall concert. A friend of mine from high school who now also goes to grad school in Los Angeles came with me. The theme of the concert was “All About Bach.” It was, in fact, an all J.S. Bach program, except that Johann Kuhnau (Bach’s predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig) and Johann Christoph Bach (a cousin of Bach’s) had a cameo apiece.

The concert was held in the rotunda of the Powell Library, a beautiful building I don’t visit nearly often enough because it’s the undergraduate library (the graduate research library, meanwhile, is architecturally uninspiring). There’s pretty brickwork and mosaics and owls carved into the balustrades of the staircases.

I listen to a lot of Baroque music, especially these days (listening to Part I of Handel’s Messiah on repeat is sure to get me through the last grueling weeks of the term, right?), but it’s so much better to hear it performed live. It renews my enthusiasm for familiar pieces. Everyone in the ensemble was performing on period instruments, and at the intermission we were invited to go up and look at them. The Baroque cellos were beautifully crafted: one of them seemed to have a Templar cross inlaid in the black wood of the fingerboard, and the other’s scroll was carved into a lion’s head. And all the string players had Baroque bows.

Something I learned at the concert was that Bach wrote a secular cantata about a father and his coffee-crazed daughter. We were treated to the daughter’s ode to coffee (“Ah! how sweet coffee tastes! / Lovelier than a thousand kisses”), and even if I couldn’t relate, it was amusing (and featured a dazzling flute part!).

The ensemble performed some perennial favorites, including the second movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, the third movement of the double violin concerto in D minor, and the entire Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The piece by Johann Christoph Bach was entirely new to me, though (so was the composer, for that matter). It was a “death aria” entitled “Mit Weinen hebt sich’s an” (“It begins with weeping”). The text is basically about how every stage of life is miserable. Seriously, looking over the English translation in the program notes, I thought it had the makings of a shape note text: “Old age approaches, the sorrowful years, / that holds no pleasure” (cf. “And if to eighty we arrive, / We’d rather sigh and groan than live” from “Exit” in The Sacred Harp). I expected there to be a turning point at the end, something along the lines of Weeping, weeping, weeping…But! Jesus/heaven! but there isn’t really. I guess that part was assumed by the German Lutherans singing and hearing this piece. All that said, the music is gorgeous.

In other news, I just turned in the first draft of Book 2 to my editor. It took me about eight and a half months to write it and do one hasty revision of it. I have never written a book that fast in my life. Now I’m experiencing manuscript withdrawal. It’s probably for the best, since now I can devote myself wholly to end-of-term projects, but I miss my manuscript…

The 25th Annual Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention


The day after my Twin Cities launch party for Sparkers, I attended the 25th Annual Minnesota State Sacred Harp Convention. The timing of my trip home couldn’t have been better. The convention was held at The Landing, an outdoor museum that recreates a 19th century settlement on the Minnesota River. It’s very picturesque. There are charming preserved houses and buildings, vegetable gardens, apple trees, and a river overlook. We sang in the Town Hall.


The Town Hall

I was called to lead during the second session of the morning. The arranging committee member introduced me, saying, “We welcome Eleanor Glewwe back from Los Angeles, CA. Ask her about her new novel, out on Tuesday!” With that, it was in to the center of the square with me. I led 501 O’Leary, for rather specific reasons. It was composed in the year of my birth by Ted Mercer, a singer from Chicago who was at the convention. It’s named for the O’Leary family, who live in the Los Angeles area. Finally, I like the tune and the text, especially the lines “How will my heart endure / The terrors of that day” (I mean, it’s about Judgment Day, but I think you can sing those words about any day you’re feeling trepidatious about). Later, a singer came up to me and said how fitting it was that I’d led O’Leary, since I’d come to the convention from Los Angeles and since Ted Mercer was in the room. She said she loved it when she could figure out why a leader had chosen a particular song. Also, Ted Mercer came up to me and asked if I’d sung with the O’Learys (I have).


The Minnesota River

The singing was fantastic, and there were a number of illustrious figures in attendance, including Judy Hauff of Chicago, who basically wrote all my favorite songs in the book (perhaps it’d be more correct to say all four of her songs are among my favorites), and Mike Hinton of Texas, the current president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. I also got to hang out with a number of young singers I don’t see very often. And the setting was just so idyllic: blue sky, autumn sunshine, painted wooden houses with porches…


Since the arranging committee had told people to ask me about my book, well, they did. And this is where things got interesting. During one of the morning breaks, across the refreshments table (and what refreshments they were! Sparkling apple cider and basil-infused lemonade!), a woman asked me if I was “that science fiction writer”. Later, someone asked me if I was the one who’d written that book about “a woman who is a robot” (or something like that). I knew at once who they were mistaking me for. What they imagined was very flattering and very wrong.

There is a Sacred Harp singer from Missouri named Ann Leckie who wrote a science fiction novel called Ancillary Justice (the sequel, Ancillary Sword, came out yesterday). I read it earlier this year on the enthusiastic recommendation of a good friend, and I thought it was amazing. But you don’t have to take my word for it: Ancillary Justice won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Hugo Award (among other honors). In other words, Ann Leckie is a big deal.

I was tickled that other singers thought I was Ann Leckie, particularly because I had actually been hoping that Ann Leckie would be at the Minnesota convention. Missouri isn’t that far from Minnesota, and in fact there were other Missouri singers there. Moreover, Ms. Leckie was going to be at the Heartland Fall Forum (a regional trade show) in Minneapolis on October 1st, so she conceivably could have combined convention and author appearance in one trip. I had imagined accosting her at dinner on the grounds, reaching across a picnic table laden with kale salads and baked pasta dishes to shake her hand and asking her for her autograph. Alas, it was not to be.


The church

The convention was wonderful all the same. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the first day, but I made it to the evening social in St. Paul, where there was more food, including a delicious bread pudding (in two versions, with and without raisins!). I overheard someone say they thought about bringing a kale salad but knew there would already be at least three, so they didn’t. More people asked me about my book. And I learned that there’s now a (small) Georgian choir in the Twin Cities!


Singers mingling–look closely for some nice beards

A last word about funny Sacred Harp texts: When singing 280 Westford, we came to this line that I always forget about until I sing it again. I have to struggle not to laugh every time. It’s this: “Blest Jesus, what delicious fare!” Whenever I get to those words, they sound to me like, “Jesus, yum!” (I know. You’re thinking of communion. That is not the context. At least, I don’t think so.) That line might be the most amusing one in the book, outside the temperance song, which is impossible to sing without laughing. But that’s a song for another day…

Musical Detection

I’ve recently discovered some fascinating connections between songs, and I can’t help sharing them with you. This post will probably be as esoteric as that series about The American Songbag. Hooray!

First, I was introduced to Thomas Morley’s “Sing We and Chant It” thanks to Rachel Hartman’s blog. Listening to this English madrigal, I was struck by how much it resembled a hymn tune whose name I always forget. I poked around and found the hymn I was thinking of: In Dir Ist Freude (In Thee Is Joy, or, as the English text goes, “In thee is gladness”). I first remember coming across this tune when I was studying abroad in France and attending the Eglise Réformée de Grenoble. (Aside: It seemed like half the hymns we sang there were from the Genevan Psalter, and they all sounded alike and were kind of boring…) One day, back in the States, the music director of my church played this hymn as an organ postlude. I recognized the melody and asked her what it was, and she told me it was In Dir Ist Freude. You can listen to a brass ensemble version of the tune here. Its resemblance to “Sing We and Chant It” is pretty easy to hear. 

Apparently, this tune was first published by Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi in 1591 with the title “L’innamorato” and a secular text about love (“A lieta vita / Amor ci invita…”). However, Gastoldi’s melody may have been inspired by German sources. The tune was then printed by Johannes Lindemann in 1594 with the sacred “In dir ist Freude” text. It seems “Sing We and Chant It” is an arrangement and embellishment of Gastoldi’s song. Also, J. S. Bach composed an organ chorale prelude for In Dir Ist Freude (BWV 615).  

Second, I discovered the wonderful song “Friendship” on Tim Eriksen’s album Every Sound Below. The title sounded like that of a shape note tune. (There is a tune in The Sacred Harp called “Friendship,” but that one is entirely different.) Anyway, the tune of “Friendship” seemed very familiar to me, and I couldn’t rest until I figured out why. I thought it was a melody I myself had played on the piano, and not that long ago. Given that my repertoire of piano pieces is very small, there weren’t that many possibilities.

I did some research on the tune “Friendship” to try to find out why it might sound familiar to me. From various sources, I learned that the lovely text Tim Eriksen sings (“Friendship, to ev’ry willing mind, / Opens a heavenly treasure”) is attributed to a Mr. Bidwell of Connecticut and was published in the Philadelphia Songster in 1789. The tune is attributed to one G. Cook. “Friendship” was a popular 18th century song that found its way into shape note books in the early 19th century and was published, among other places, in The Hesperian Harp (1848).

The melody is in the tenor line, the third one down

The melody is in the tenor line, the third one down

So, back to my suspicions that I had played this tune on the piano. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that the piece I was remembering was the very first one in a collection of easy Handel works my mother had given me for Christmas. I asked her to photograph the music for me, and as it turned out, this Gavotte in C major was the one I had been thinking of. If you read music, you can see for yourself that the melody is very close to that of “Friendship,” and you can also listen to someone playing it on the piano here.

I was very pleased with myself for having discovered this connection. But then I found this post by Rachel Wells Hall, a Philadelphia Sacred Harp singer and one of the authors of the new Shenandoah Harmony, and I realized someone else had already written all about it. It turns out the gavotte above is the same as the chorus “Viva la face, viva l’amor” from Handel’s 1736 opera Atalanta. And what’s more, “Friendship” is in The Shenandoah Harmony, so I have the music!

Third, I heard the song “La solette et le limandin” by the Breton band Tri Yann on Pandora. I noticed that it sounded rather like a song I’d learned in elementary school, whose tune I vaguely remembered was the same as the Israeli national anthem. I looked up the national anthem, which is called “Hatikvah,” and sure enough, it was the tune I was thinking of. The words I learned in school began “Autour de la flamme quand le jour se meurt / Nos chants proclament un monde meilleur” (“Around the flame as the day dies / Our singing proclaims a better world”–apologies for the clunky translation). Funnily enough, Googling these lyrics reveals that this is a song from Lac du Bois, the French summer camp in northern Minnesota I attended once, but I definitely learned it at school, not at camp.

In any case, I tried to unearth some background on the Tri Yann song to see if any connection to “Hatikvah” was acknowledged, but instead I read that “La solette et le limandin” bore a close resemblance to a 16th century Italian song called “Il Ballo di Mantova”! Not what I was expecting. The Italian song was composed by Giuseppino del Biado, and its original text begins “Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi da questo cielo”. As it turns out, though, “Il Ballo di Mantova” has quite the legacy. It was quoted in Bedřich Smetana’s symphonic poem Die Moldau (Vltava), which I have played, and it inspired “Hatikvah” (possibly through the intermediary of a Romanian folksong–it sounds like the Italian tune spread throughout Europe during the Renaissance). A version of it is even in John Playford’s The Dancing Master (1657), under the title “An Italian Rant,” so one could do an English country dance to this tune!

A Visit to the Getty

This past weekend was a bit of a whirlwind. Be warned: this is a long post with lots of photos!

I devoted most of Saturday to visiting the Getty Center. Allow me to tell you how we got there. The Getty’s website will tell the intrepid public transportation user to take the 761, which will drop you off right in front of the entrance. However, I didn’t really know where to catch the 761 (nowhere particularly close to where we live), and it would cost money (though the fare is admittedly cheap). On the other hand, we have passes for the Big Blue Bus, and I saw that we could catch the 14 practically on our doorstep and ride it to the end of the line, which seemed to be just a few blocks south of the Getty entrance. So we rode the 14 to the end of the line and began walking north on Sepulveda Blvd, only to discover that the sidewalk ended almost immediately. Beyond, Sepulveda looked more like a highway, running alongside the 405. There was no sidewalk on the other side of the street, only the dirt embankment of the freeway.

Silly me for assuming Los Angeles would be designed for pedestrians. But no matter! If we went one block eastward and struck out north, we might find a way back to Sepulveda at a point where it had a sidewalk again. The streets weren’t quite grid-like, but as long as we kept track of the cardinal directions, we would be fine. We found ourselves wandering through the quiet and very exclusive-feeling streets of Bel Air. We hopefully followed a long, meandering lane whose through-ness was ambiguously labeled and reached a dead end. Hopes dashed, we doubled back to the last outlet onto Sepulveda, at which point it became clear we would have to walk on the sidewalk-less curb or retrace our steps by quite a ways to find a 761 bus stop. We chose to go forward.

Happily, after a short stretch of Sepulveda in which we had to push past shrubs, an asphalt path, narrower than a sidewalk, appeared, and we were able to walk on that until the sidewalk returned. The moral of the story: you can’t really take the 14 to the Getty.

Once through the entrance, we rode the tram up the hill to the Getty Center itself. The Getty has gardens, multiple pavilions of art, and panoramic views of Los Angeles, and apparently the architecture of the place itself is impressive, though I’m afraid I didn’t pay much attention to it. I’d heard the Getty had illuminated manuscripts and some famous Impressionist paintings, so seeing those was my priority.

The illuminated manuscripts currently on display are all part of an exhibit called Chivalry in the Middle Ages. This is a page from Tristan and Isolde (or Yseult, or whatever your favorite spelling is). The manuscript is in French, and I was surprised how much I could read and understand of this and of the copy of the Roman de la Rose. The chief impediment to understanding was the script, not the actual words.

Tristan and Isolde

I liked this plate (which might be…Italian?) for the ship in the center. It was only when looking at the photo at home that I noticed the musical instruments around the edge.


This is apparently Orpheus, even though I always picture him with a lyre. On the left side of this vase is a depiction of the prophet Elisha, who, in an episode I do not recall from 2 Kings, had some sort of mystical experience provoked by the sound of a stringed instrument.


You can probably guess why I took a picture of this portrait.

Pink Lady

If you squint at her music, it almost looks like a shape note tunebook!

Music Book

We left this pavilion and took in the view from the hilltop. We could see mountains in the distance, but also the smudgy air settled over the city. We spotted UCLA, which includes the reddish Romanesque buildings in the middleground of this photo.

Getty View

Next, we looked at some more recent art. These goats in J. M. W. Turner’s Modern Rome–Campo Vaccino are so cute!


And Monet’s Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning is really lovely.


The Getty also has Vincent van Gogh’s Irises, which was beautiful.

From the museum, we moved on to the main garden, which is basically a bowl with a fountain/azalea maze at its center. It was pretty enough, and there were some interesting plants, including a huge, tree-like Angel’s Trumpet (Brugmansia), a pomegranate tree (California is so exotic!), and a vine with unusually-shaped purple flowers that made me think “sweet pea,” though I could be totally wrong. Weirdest of all was the black petunia below; I overheard a woman talking about it and had to go find it.

Black Petunia

By the end of the day, we were exhausted, but our trip to the Getty was well worth it. Oh, and on our way home, we caught the 761 directly in front of the entrance.

Other things I did this weekend:

  • My roommate went on a field trip to West Hollywood with her Russian class and brought back pastries, candy, and a bottle of kvas. We split the pastries, which included a poppy seed roll and a croissant filled with cheese (almost like cream cheese frosting) and raisins.
Russian Candy

What is with Russian candy and squirrels?

  • I finally got myself to the local English country dance group’s Sunday afternoon dance. It was fun, and there was a decent amount of overlap with the contra and shape note communities. It was also open band day, so there were twenty or so musicians playing an eclectic assortment of instruments. Have you ever done English country dance to tuba?

Northern Spark 2014

I am on vacation in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and I arrived just in time for Northern Spark 2014. This is an all-night arts festival I’ve attended with friends for the past two years (I mentioned the 2013 festival briefly in my 2013 recap post). The first year I went, it was in Minneapolis, and we spent most of our time around the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi. Last year, it was in St. Paul, in and around the Union Depot railroad station. This year, it was back in Minneapolis, and it coincided with the opening of the Green Line, the new light rail train that connects the Twin Cities’ downtowns. The light rail line was in the midst of construction the whole time I lived in Beth Shalom last year, and whenever I walked down University Avenue to go to the library or to grab a meatball bánh mì, I would see the as yet unused rails and the empty stations and regret the fact that I would be leaving before the trains started running. In celebration of the opening of the Green Line, all Twin Cities buses and trains were free this past weekend–a public transportation fan’s dream! 

Saturday was rainy and blustery, so I did not ride the Green Line to St. Paul as I’d hoped. Besides, we were hosting a garden party at home, which ended up being indoors due to the weather.


Some of my mother’s peonies

In the evening, as a thunderstorm rolled through, I took a (free!) bus to downtown Minneapolis and met some friends at the Convention Center for the opening ceremony of Northern Spark. After some taiko drumming and a welcome from Mayor Betsy Hodges, we headed to Orchestra Hall to hear the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Courtney Lewis, perform Kevin Puts’s Symphony No. 4. It was my first time in Orchestra Hall since it was renovated, and for the most part it didn’t look that different. It was also my first time hearing the Minnesota Orchestra since the lockout ended. The last time I heard these musicians perform live, they were playing independently as the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. And the last time I heard them at all was in October, in LA, when I listened to Minnesota Public Radio’s live stream of Osmo Vänskä‘s last concert as conductor of the orchestra. Now the lockout is over, and Osmo is back! So it was really meaningful to be back in that familiar hall hearing this orchestra again. The symphony was accompanied by a light show against the cubes embedded in the wall behind the stage. Some of it was rather pretty, but it felt a bit superfluous to me.

After the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance, we prowled around Orchestra Hall and the Convention Center seeing what else there was to see. There was a trebuchet out in the street hurling water balloons containing LED lights in soaring arcs over the pavement. There were some musicians playing unusual instruments (bowed banjo?) in the Convention Center arcade. We dashed through the rain to this seesaw that was supposed to do something light/sound-related, but it was hard to tell what it was doing, exactly, and we were getting wet.

Eventually, we rode the new Green Line a short ways to the East Bank of the University of Minnesota and ducked into the Weisman Art Museum. This is where I knew the local Sacred Harp singers were holding an all-night Northern Spark singing. The people I was with were very good sports about singing with me for most of the hour between midnight and 1 a.m., and it was rather fun to make my reappearance among the Twin Cities singers in the middle of a stormy night. We sang some tunes befitting the circumstances, like The Midnight Cry and Showers of Blessings.

From the Weisman, we hopped from one U building to the next. The Gossip Orchestra was pretty cool, and in Northrop Auditorium we experienced the Fruit Orchestra, in which you hold an alligator clip in one hand and hit pieces of fruit (a banana, a lemon, a lime) with the other to make music. The tomatoes and cherry were in somewhat bad shape by the time we got to the Fruit Orchestra. (It strikes me that there are a lot of orchestras in this post.) Also in Northrop was a slideshow, projected on the wall, of the outlines of all the lakes in Minnesota.

As it approached 2 a.m., we decided we’d had enough of running around in the rain and exploring Northern Spark in wet clothes. For our final adventure of the night, we crossed the Mississippi using this former railroad bridge that I hadn’t known existed (according to Wikipedia, it is Northern Pacific Bridge Number 9) as the wind blew rain in our faces and thunder rumbled overhead.

One last thing! For helping to fund Northern Spark this year, I received this bit of plastic, which, believe it or not, is called a sparker (as are people who attend Northern Spark, apparently–that makes me a Sparker!).


My sparker

Why is it called a sparker? Because it does this:


The LA Regional All-Day Singing

This past weekend I went to the LA Regional All-Day Sacred Harp Singing, back at the former military post overlooking the ocean where I was for the All-California Convention in January. Since this was a regional all-day, it was smaller than the convention. The singing was great, though, and it was fun to see familiar faces and get to know some other Southern California singers better. The weather was more or less the same as it was in January (seriously, what is this climate?).

This is Catalina Island as seen from the top of the hill where the singing was held. It was almost invisible in the morning, and later in the day it was still mostly shrouded in luminous mist.

Catalina Island

At the bottom of the hill is the Korean Friendship Bell, a gift from South Korea to the United States on the occasion of the latter’s bicentennial. I first saw it in January, during the convention, and I went back for another look this time.


The bronze bell is massive and features a Statue of Liberty-esque figure next to a Korean figure on all four sides. If you look closely, you can also see many hibiscus blossoms, or, as the explanatory plaque calls them, roses of Sharon. Funnily enough, Rose of Sharon is also the name of a six-page anthem in The Sacred Harp, and we did in fact sing it on Saturday.

Friendship Bell

Finally, a friend once told me that the world is tiny and the shape note world tinier still. Here is a story from this singing to illustrate that: It was still early in the morning, and I was singing away in the alto section looking across the hollow square at the tenor section when I noticed a familiar-looking man there. I knew I’d seen him recently, but I couldn’t recall where. I didn’t think I’d seen him at a local singing. I wondered if he’d been at the contra dance I’d gone to the weekend before, since it’s not unusual for shape note singers to be folk dancers and vice versa. Then I glimpsed his name tag, and I recognized his name as one I’d just seen somewhere (it was memorable in part because it’s very similar to the name of a well-known linguist). I was racking my brains trying to figure out where I knew this man from when it finally hit me: he was the musette player from the hurdy-gurdy concert I’d gone to the previous weekend, the one I wrote about last week!

Anyway, at the next break, I accosted him and told him I recognized him as the musette player from the concert, and we had a pleasant conversation about early music.

Singing and More Singing

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of singing, which makes me happy. The All-California Sacred Harp Convention was January 18-19. I keep mentioning Sacred Harp and shape note without explaining what they are for those who might not know, so…shape note singing is a tradition of communal a cappella hymn singing in four-part harmony. Singers sit in a hollow square and take turns leading songs, beating time from the center of the square. The term “shape note” refers to the musical notation, in which noteheads have one of four shapes (there are also seven shape systems). The tradition has its roots in New England, later flourished in the American South, and is now active throughout the United States as well as abroad. The Sacred Harp is a particular book of shape note tunes.

Anyway, this year’s All-California was my fourth Sacred Harp convention; in 2012, I went to the Keystone Convention in Bethlehem, PA, the Young People’s Singing in Minneapolis, and the Minnesota Convention, also in Minneapolis. I know a lot of Pennsylvania/East Coast singers and Minnesota singers, and this was an opportunity to meet more LA/California/West Coast singers. The convention was held at a former military site turned cultural center on a hill overlooking the Pacific. We sang in a building that used to serve as officers’ quarters or something like that, but with its lovely porch it actually reminded me more of a Quaker meetinghouse. During the breaks between singing sessions, I would go out and bask in the sunshine or stand in the shade of a eucalyptus taking in the view of the ocean and the luminous Catalina Island. It was really idyllic. It was too beautiful not to have lunch outside, and since there wasn’t a lot of picnic table seating, my friends and I ate the traditional potluck “dinner on the grounds” literally on the ground. There was also this group of young men from Santa Cruz who came to the singing and who, during the midday breaks, brought out fiddles and banjo and string bass and played old-time music on the hilltop. It was unexpected but delightful.

And the singing itself was great. At conventions, you have to try to pace yourself. Shape note singing is traditionally loud, robust, and full-voiced, and after a certain number of hours singing in this manner, your voice starts to go. I try to drink a lot of water and maybe sing more gently on songs I like less, but it’s hard not to sing with all your might when so many good tunes are being led and the sound around you is so big.

So that was All-California. The other singing I’ve been doing is Georgian (as in the Caucasus) singing. I’ve had some exposure to Georgian vocal music before. My first encounter might’ve been when this group called Trio Kavkasia performed at Swarthmore my first year there. I also know (independently) several people who’ve gone to Georgia on singing trips (it’s a thing), and last spring I went to a workshop taught by the Georgian ensemble Zedashe when they came through Minneapolis. (Actually, the day after the workshop there was an informal social singing with the Georgians and a bunch of local Twin Cities Sacred Harp singers—shape note singing with Georgians!)

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a blue flyer taped to the door of the Phonetics Lab announcing the first meeting of the Kartvelian Chorus. “Want to sing in Georgian?” it asked. “How about in Svan?” The first rehearsal was to be held in the linguistics conference room. Come Friday, I went. The teacher turns out to be a lecturer in the department, an Indian-American woman who’s studied with song masters in Georgia. The UCLA linguistics department has a definite musical streak, and the people who came were more or less those whom I’d expected. The teacher handed out lyrics sheets and started teaching us songs by ear. We’ve now had two rehearsals, and I love it.

It’s fun learning songs in a different language with linguists because we’ll stop now and then to ask if such and such sound is velar or uvular. Georgian is notorious for its difficult (for English speakers) consonant clusters, like the one at the beginning of the word mk’vdretit. Also, Georgian has ejectives, a particular kind of sound that can be hard for native English speakers to produce and which I find especially hard to produce while singing. I think this means Kartvelian Chorus counts as practice for my upcoming practical phonetics exam.

Homecoming Miscellany

I’m home! And there is snow here. There are also some other things:

Rootabaga Stories

Remember Rootabaga Pigeons? My mother checked this out from the library for me. It’s “an omnibus volume including all the stories in ‘Rootabaga Stories’ and ‘Rootabaga Pigeons.'” Carl Sandburg’s fondness for long and fanciful section titles is confirmed beyond all doubt, as evidenced by: “Three Stories About the Finding of the Zigzag Railroad, the Pigs with Bibs On, the Circus Clown Ovens, the Village of Liver-and-Onions, the Village of Cream Puffs.” I read a couple of the stories. They are very weird and a little bit Ozian.

Behold, my very own copy of The Shenandoah Harmony, the newest shape note songbook! I know three members of the music committee who selected the songs for this collection, and two friends of mine have tunes in the book, so it’s rather exciting to finally acquire it.

Shenandoah HarmonyShenandoah Harmony 2

Finally, here’s the family cat, Bismarck, looking very literary.

French Bismarck

The American Songbag, Part I: First Impressions

This summer, my mother went to an estate sale and came home with several songbooks. One of them was The American Songbag by Carl Sandburg. I was surprised to learn that this was the same Carl Sandburg as the poet! Further poking around revealed that The American Songbag had its own entry in Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. It was clearly a big deal!

This songbook is a treasure. Here’s a collection of things I’ve found amusing, interesting, or delightful about The American Songbag so far:

  • Opposite the title page is a list of other works by Carl Sandburg, including, under “For Young People,” something called Rootabaga Pigeons. Rootabaga Pigeons?!
  • The copyright page includes the following notice: “[This book] is manufactured under wartime conditions in conformity with all governmental regulation controlling the use of paper and other materials.” The American Songbag was published in 1927, but perhaps the edition I have was printed during World War II…?
  • The prefatory notes include this tidbit: “Leo Sowerby was twenty-one years old when a Chicago orchestra produced a concerto for ‘cello by him entitled ‘The Irish Washerwoman.’” Wow, can I play this?
  • Then there is Carl Sandburg’s Apologia, which I found so astonishing I think it deserves to be quoted at length: “I apologize for the imperfections in this work. I believe no one else is now, or ever will be, so deeply aware and so thoroughly and widely conscious of the imperfections in these pages.…Many considerations which have governed the selection of material…are not worth setting forth in a foreword…; they would have value chiefly and only to those who already understand somewhat the labyrinths, the twisted pathways, and roads of life, out of which this book issues. The book was begun in depths of humility…. It is a book for sinners, and for lovers of humanity. I apologize to them for the sins of the book and that it loves much but not enough.”
  • The songbook is sorted into various sections, some of which have amusing titles like “Tarnished Love Tales or Colonial and Revolutionary Antiques,” “Kentucky Blazing Star” (Kentucky gets a whole section unto itself!), “Hobo Songs” (including “Hallelujah, I’m a bum!”), and perhaps best of all, “Picnic and Hayrack Follies, Close Harmony, and Darn Fool Ditties.”

Going through the songbook page by page, I realized most of the songs were unfamiliar to me. A few I did recognize or which otherwise stood out to me:

  • “Sourwood Mountain” (p. 125): The notes say this song has many different versions. I learned one in elementary school, to a tune that is clearly related to the one in the book. The first verse is the same one I remember, but the only other verse I recall (“My true love she lives in Letcher / She won’t come and I won’t fetch her”) is not in The American Songbag.
  • The Missouri Harmony (p. 152): I was quite surprised to discover in the middle of this songbook pages reproduced from The Missouri Harmony, a shape note tune book I have only once had the opportunity to sing out of. Apparently it is said Abraham Lincoln sang from The Missouri Harmony.
  • “The Brown Girl or Fair Eleanor” (p. 156): I had to mention this song because it has my name in it! In the text, the Brown Girl and Fair Eleanor are rivals for the affections of one Lord Thomas. All three characters are dead by the end of the song, but incredibly, the tune is lilting and cheerful. Also, Abraham Lincoln may have been sung this song as a child.
  • “Weevily Wheat” (p. 161): This is the first time I’ve come across this song since I learned it in elementary school. The tune is roughly the same, though I remember singing it in a different meter. The only verses I remember are the first and the one about going over the river to the sheep. The notes say that “the Charley of this song may be the Prince Charlie of Jacobite Ballads.” I always remember knowing it was about Bonnie Prince Charlie, though somebody must have told me that.
  • “Little Ah Sid” (p. 276): This is a racist song about Chinese people.
  • “Mag’s Song” (p. 316): A second text is included with this song, and it’s actually this second text that piqued my interest. Entitled “The Orphan Girl” or “No Bread for the Poor,” it appears, I’m pretty sure, in The Shenandoah Harmony, a new shape note tune book published just this year. The text tells the tragic and melodramatic tale of an orphan girl who begs at the door of a rich man who refuses to let her in, so she freezes to death overnight. It’s like a cross between “The Little Match Girl” and Dives and Lazarus.

Coming next week: the discovery of unexpected connections between songs! (If you thought this post was esoteric, I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse. But I promise you pretty music!)