Memorial singing

Personal notes on shapenote singing: a bulletin, a letter to friends, from 9/17/01, in the aftermath of 9/11; then some notes on singing in memory of the dead.

19 September 2001. We had our monthly shapenote singing in San Francisco today. It seemed like a good thing to do. (And the New York City singers did it too, so we certainly could.)

A very large turnout, much passionate singing, some tears.

But it was really much more remarkable than that. To start with, a number of the singers wanted to begin by singing patriotic songs, not Our Music. We did this, and I went along with it. But not everyone did. Even for the Star-Spangled Banner, two of our group neither sang nor stood up.

And no one said or did a thing about this, or treated these two people in any way different from the rest of us. We are not perfectly tolerant, but on many fronts we really do get it right. I’ll go and try to educate the Mormons about our singing, on behalf of the LDS couple in our Palo Alto group, and they’ll come and sing at Jacques’s care facility (and not look away or look disapproving when J and I kiss), for my sake.

We went on to sing one intense song after another. I led them all for the first hour, sobbing through several of them. (Eventually, other people were willing to lead.)

One of the singers asked for two songs, two songs in memory of his mother and a friend, both of whom had died in the last few weeks. For the second, Boylston, he explained that the Sacred Harp text for this song came as close to the sentiments of the Kaddish as anything he could find. So we sang our Christian hymn as Kaddish.

I was very glad I went. My chest has been hurting terribly, and I have a sinus infection that often stops up my ears (and makes me deaf on the left side), but for two hours I soared on the wings of angels, and I made a very loud, resounding noise in the face of death.

I did veto any possibility of singing War Department (there are several counts against it, including its origin in the campaigns against the American Indians), and several of us argued, successfully, against Babylon Is Fallen, a wonderful song in many ways — but it’s a hymn of Christian triumph at the destruction of Babylon, omigod.


The texts:

147t BOYLSTON (text by Isaac Watts, 1707; setting by Lowell Mason, 1832; added to The Sacred Harp in 1991)

1. My God, my life, my love,
To Thee, to Thee I call;
I cannot live if Thou remove,
For Thou art all in all.

2. Thy shining grace can cheer
This dungeon where I dwell;
‘Tis paradise when Thou art here,
If thou depart, ’tis hell.

3. The smilings of Thy face,
How amiable they are;
‘Tis heav’n to rest in Thine embrace,
And nowhere else but there.

4. To Thee, and Thee alone
The angels owe their bliss;
They sit around Thy gracious throne,
And dwell where Jesus is.

5. Not all the harps above
Can make a heav’nly place;
If God his residence remove,
Or but conceal His face.

160t WAR DEPARTMENT (text not attributed; setting from Southern Harmony, 1835)

No more shall the sound of the war-whoop be heard,
The ambush and slaughter no longer be feared.
The tomahawk, buried, shall rest in the ground,
And peace and good-will to the nations abound.

117 BABYLON IS FALLEN (text unattributed; setting by W. E. Chute, 1878; added to The Sacred Harp in 1991)

1. Hail the day so long expected,
Hail the year of full release.
Zion’s walls are now erected,
And her watchmen publish peace.

Thro’ our Shiloh’s wide dominion,
Hear the trumpet loudly roar,
Babylon is fallen, is fallen, is fallen
Babylon is fallen to rise no more.

2. All her merchants stand with wonder,
What is this that comes to pass?
Murm’ring like the distant thunder,
Crying, “O alas, alas.”

Swell the sound, ye kings and nobles,
Priest and people, rich and poor;
Babylon is fallen, is fallen, is fallen
Babylon is fallen to rise no more.

3. Blow the trumpet in Mount Zion,
Christ shall come the second time;
Ruling with a rod of iron
All who now as foes combine.

Babel’s garments we’ve rejected,
And our fellowship is o’er,
Babylon is fallen, is fallen, is fallen
Babylon is fallen to rise no more.

In memory of the dead. I sometimes lead Babylon Is Fallen in memory of Jacques (who died in 2003), because it was his favorite shapenote song. (He didn’t sing, but enjoyed being at singings.) Jordan (First) is my standard choice for a memorial song:

66 JORDAN (First) (text by Isaac Watts, 1707; setting by William Billings, 1786; added to The Sacred Harp in 1991)

1. There is a land of pure delight,
Where saints immortal reign,
Infinite day excludes the night,
And pleasures banish pain.

Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood,
Stand dressed in living green,
So to the Jews old Canaan stood,
While Jordan rolled between.

2. O could we make our doubts remove,
Those gloomy doubts that rise,
And see the Canaan that we love
With unbeclouded eyes.

Could we but climb where Moses stood,
And view the landscape o’er,
Not Jordan’s stream, nor death’s cold flood
Should fright us from the shore.

Some are partial to All Is Well (122) as a memorial song, because it’s so explicitly a hymn of triumph over death, but it’s such a sweet song and I can rarely get through verse 2 (“Weep not, my friends, my friends weep not for me / All is well, all is well!”) without, well, weeping. For Jacques, I sing Mount Desert (474) — a “new song”, text by Isaac Watts, 1707, setting by Bruce Randall, 1985 — because the title evokes the Maine coast that he loved so much, because the music is so fierce, and because it ends in eternal arms of love:

Not walls or hills could guard so well
Old Salem’s happy ground,
As those eternal arms of love,
As those eternal arms of love
That ev’ry saint surround,
That ev’ry saint surround.

One Response to “Memorial singing”

  1. Shapenote videos « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Shapenote videos By arnold zwicky Addendum to my postings on shapenote singing (here here and here): […]

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