I’ve been searching for music groups with which I can participate while here in Washington. I haven’t found a drum circle or musician’s circle like some of the ones in Upstate South Carolina, but I’ve been having fun with the Bring Your Own Guitar group. Finally I found a Shape Note Singing. I knew I had to check it out.
I started with the granddaddy of Internet resources for Shape Note Singing, FaSoLa.org. They have a list of singings from around the country. The listings for Washington linked to the Pacific Northwest Sacred Harp Singers website, which had a similar list of singings for the region. As I perused the listings I got a bit discouraged. Many of the singings, including the closest one up in Bellingham, were listed as “no longer meeting.” Finally I spotted one that meets on Whidbey Island the first Sunday of each month. It looked like it would be in range, so I put it on my calendar.
The singing is held at Langley Methodist Church in the town of Langley. I’d never been to Langley, and had only been south of Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island once. We had taken the ferry from Port Townsend years ago. Langley was quite a bit further south from that, so this would be new territory for me.
There was a hold-over snowiness from the previous day. The local mountains were dusted with white and clouds hung low, but there was no active precipitation. Since I was still in pain from gout and could barely walk, and since I was unfamiliar with the drive, I decided to get an early start and left at noon for my 3:00 rendezvous.
I headed west on Highway 20 over to Fidalgo Island, then south, crossing the Deception Pass Bridge. I had all of my cameras with me but just didn’t feel like stopping for photos this time. I continued on to Whidbey Island. There was a quick lunch in Oak Harbor, then further southward through island farmland and views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the west and the Saratoga Passage and Skagit Bay to the east. The scenery was enticing, but the weather and my aching foot kept me in the car and away from my cameras.
I reached the town of Coupeville and decided to check out the historic waterfront. All of the stores in the town are lined along Penn Cove, kind of like the commercial district of Laconner. It looked like an interesting place to spend more time, with several restaurants and shops. I just drove through, then continued on my way. I passed through the communities of Greenbank, Freeland, and Bay View (a different one), then finally reached the turn-off to Langley. I was a bit early so I decided to drive through the small town.
Langley is very much like Coupeville, with the main commercial district along the waterfront. It seemed a bit bigger, though. There were several restaurants and quite a few gift shops, antique stores, and art galleries. One of the things that struck me was that there were at least four book stores, one of them billing itself as an antiquarian book store. Langley looked like a place I’d love to visit again, preferably on a sunny day.
The church was easy to find. I parked on the street, but closer down to the stores. There was a thrift store nearby, so I ventured in to kill a bit of time until the singing started. It was a typical small thrift store. Most of the clerks were glued to a radio listening to the Seahawks game.
At about 2:45 I moved the car over to the church parking lot. One other car had arrived, and I was wondering if I had made the trip for naught. Finding the Fellowship Hall was a bit of a challenge, but I was able to follow the signs and find an open door. One couple was in the hall, and Bruce greeted me and said I was in the right place.
This group uses the 1991 Denson Edition of the Sacred Harp. This is the same version we use back home. Some singing groups use the 2012 Cooper Edition but I’ve not sung with one of them. I had also left all of my singing books back in Greenville. Fortunately they had loaners.
Bruce told me that attendance would be sparse this afternoon because of the Seahawks game. He had been expecting only one per part, though there was an open square arrangement set up with several chairs for each part, just in case. Bruce’s wife would sing soprano and Bruce would sing lead. Another couple arrived, a bass and an alto. Two others showed up unexpectedly. Laura made the trip over by ferry from Everett, and one other guy was local. Both would join Bruce on lead. That brought the number to seven – one soprano, one alto, three lead/tenors, and two basses.
Bruce seemed to be the de facto leader of the group. He picked, intoned, then led most of the songs. The format seemed more informal than the groups in Greenville. No minutes were kept, and leadership didn’t rotate around the circle.
Another difference was that we all sang through each voice part on tone syllables, then sang our own part on syllables before switching to words. This meant that we spent much more time on each song. In the two hour session I think we only sang twelve songs total. Here are a couple of audio samples.
A couple of us suggested other songs, but it all seemed to come down to Bruce. I wasn’t sure about the experience level of the rest of the group, whether they were long-time singers or if this was their only Shape Note outlet. Laura seemed to have the most experience with outside groups, singing with a group in Seattle on a regular basis. I, of course, was the oddity. I gave them a bit of my musical background, including the fact that I had sung at and visited William Walker’s grave in Spartanburg and had also sung with the late Hugh McGraw, editor of the 1991 Denson Book. I had some bonafides.
At 4:00 we took a break and had some delicious banana bread and apple slices. Then it was back to singing. Despite the low attendance the group sang with gusto. There were lots of missed notes, myself included. There also didn’t seem to be the overt religiosity of some of the singings back east. Some singers back there come to events with a fervor that can be…scary. These folks were just gathering for a fun afternoon of singing – no prayers, no concentration of morbid songs about redemption from hell.
Bruce and his wife also run a folk musicians circle in the nearby community of Bay View. That might be worth checking out. As for this shape not singing, I doubt I’ll make this a regular monthly gig. It was a long haul down here. I don’t know if I’d feel differently if it were a larger group. I just wish that there was something like this closer to Samish Island. I may have to see if there is a beer and hymns event in the area. That might be more to the tastes of the Pacific Northwest.
This being the first day after the time change it was already dark when I headed back. I got home tired from driving and with an aching heel. However, I was glad to have made the trip and glad for an opportunity to exercise my vocal cords. I’ll keep looking for other music participation opportunities.