Saturday I attended the William Walker Memorial Shape Note Singing at Wofford College in Spartanburg. This was a special occasion, marking the bicentennial of Walker’s birth. An entire weekend of events had been planned for the event. In addition to the singing, there would be an evening showing of the documentary Awake My Soul, and on Sunday a special service at Morningside Baptist Church celebrating the life of William Walker.
Despite the rain, a good crowd gathered for the singing. I showed up armed with all of my cameras and recording gear, and immediately fell into the “documentarian’s dilemma.” It’s very hard to both record and participate in an event. If I’m going to sing I have a hard time also taking photos. I set up the camcorder and portable field recorder in a corner and just let them run. I would take photos as I could during the singing.
The morning started with singing school. Jonathon (aka The Melodist on Flickr) did a great job explaining the four shape system of the Sacred Harp and the seven shapes of Walker’s The Southern Harmony. He also explained the mechanics of being a song leader, differentiating the “song leading” style with normal choral conducting.
At 10:00 am things really got under way. This event always begins with songs from The Sacred Harp in the morning, then after lunch singing from The Southern Harmony. The tradition is to begin with “Brethren, We Have Met to Worship” followed by an invocation.
This is a very participatory activity. People sign up to lead songs, and the chairman (chairwoman, in this case) calls out the next two leaders, giving the second person a head’s up so that they can get their song prepared. The songs are first sung through on Fa-sol-la or Do-re-mi syllables, depending on the book, then we sang two or three verses from each song.
As with most of these singings, I found myself stumbling over the syllables, or simply singing “la” just to learn the part. Often I would use the syllable verse to take a few pictures, then rejoin the singing when we got to the text.
The chairs are arranged in “four square” arrangement, with basses, altos, trebles, and leads (tenors) facing toward the center. Anyone can really sing any part with which they feel comfortable.
I had foolishly signed up to be a leader. I tried my hand at it at last spring’s singing at Furman, and thought I would be OK leading a song. For my song I picked a familiar one – “How Firm a Foundation.” Below is a video of me leading:
What I didn’t realize was that the names on the leaders list rotate. So the second time I was called out to lead, it really caught me off-guard. I had to scramble to find a song I knew passably well and that I could lead. I wound up leading four songs – two from The Sacred Harp in the morning and two from The Southern Harmony in the afternoon. The best sound is where the leader stands in the four square arrangement, so everyone should try leading at some time.
There were several familiar faces, folks I recognized from the Owings and Furman singins. There were also a couple of Shape Note luminaries in attendance. Hugh McGraw is the editor of the 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp, and even has a couple of his songs published in it. Harry Eskew helped organize the William Walker singing at Wofford fifteen years ago, and is a regular participant.
The tradition at this singing is to head out to William Walker’s grave in Magnolia Cemetery and sing a final song. Since it was raining I decided to skip that portion and head on home.
I was able to get lots of good audio and video footage from the singing. I’ll try processing it and posting online when I get a chance.