Sunday, January 11, 2015

Alice and the Congregational Sing

I found myself missing my dad today.

Dad and I did not have many topics that were safe for us to discuss.  We just saw the world differently, and had a hard time communicating across that divide.  The 'safe' topics themselves were a little unusual. Oddly enough, religion was one safe topic.  Game theory, of all subjects, was another.

But music.... music was always safe.  We could talk about musical sources and influences, about harmonizations, about composers and genres. We could listen without talking, or we could dissect the performance we were listening to while we listened.

After a choral performance, I would often call Dad and we'd talk about it.  When I'd hear something special, I'd want to share it with him first.  He introduced me to a few a capella groups that I did not know.  Our infrequent emails usually had a link to something musically interesting in them.

Today at St Charles Avenue Pres, we had an item in the service called "Hearing the Congregational Voice".  And it was led by Alice Parker, who was in town for a choral clinic she was giving at the New Orleans Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. I immediately recognized her name; anyone who has sung choral music in the past fifty years has done multiple arrangements by her and Robert Shaw.... her name is synonymous with choral music.

Image from
So this bird-like lady walked up to the podium after the introduction by our choir director Steven Blackmon, and immediately mesmerized the entire congregation. 

She explained some of the history of congregational singing, how the itinerant preachers were often accompanied on their trips by a music leader - and that organs, pianos, and all sorts of instrumentation were beyond the means of those frontier folk.  So they made up for it by singing.

Singing, she went on to explain, was embedded in all aspects of society.  There were weaving songs, there were ploughing songs, and at the end of the day, the family gathered around the table and sang.  Songbooks, she explained, were even printed with opposite pages being printed upside down, soprano and bass on one side, alto and tenor on the other, upside down..... so that people could read the music on opposite sides of the table.

I was listening with rapt attention.*

And then she started to lead us in singing.  As soon as her thin, reedy voice sang the first line of the hymn, we repeated the line.  Twice more, and we moved to the second line.  We sang that verse, then three others, between each verse listening to her explain about the jazzy bounce that the song had.

And we sang it just like she said.  Bouncy.  Jazzy.  Presbyterians, mind you, were singing bouncy.

Then came a dirge - By the Waters of Babylon, in a Latvian tune originally used to tell a story of a woman and an eternally cold winter. Then another tune, followed by a spiritual.  And with each tune, she used her wispy voice to grab the Frozen Chosen by the throat and wring amazing music out of them. No piano.  No organ.  Just a congregation, joining their voices together in praise.  Simple melodies.  Made-up harmonies (nothing in the hymnal to tell me HOW to sing, just an invitation).

And in doing so, today, she embedded in our our worship the music that we so often give over to the professionals.

It lasted thirty minutes, and yet for me, it was over in an instant. And all I wanted to do was to call up Mac, and in an excited voice, say, "Dad, guess what!" Because he would have understood, and been excited with me.

I missed that, and him, more than ever.

* Her talk resonated particularly with me; I believe that the 'professionalization' of music is a bellwether of our society's dis-integration.  Music has an integrating function; when its performance is limited to the realm of the professional, we are giving up that function.  And in the process, music loses soul, and becomes purely art.    


Susan League said...

Beautiful, Crorey. My favorite part of church is singing the hymns because it is really the only time that I get to sing with others. How great would it be if we all still owned tons of sheet music and sang together at least some nights after dinner? Answer: it would be AWESOME.

Crorey Lawton said...

I agree, Susan. Perfectly awesome.