Lexical adventures in the Sacred Harp

Two explorations in the vocabulary of The Sacred Harp, 1991 Denson revision, provoked by songs called at shapenote singings in Palo Alto: most recently, the occurrence of dragon(s), serpent(s), and hurricane(s) in Florence #121 (all of them unique in the book, according to Chris Thorman’s 1992 Concordance to the songbook); and a while back, the striking use of vice in Mission #204’s “luring scenes of vice” (one of two occurrences in the book, the other being in Columbus #67).  Elsewhere, there’s Cambridge #287, a hymn of resistance to temptation; and O Come Away #334, a rousing temperance hymn (with a history in German student drinking songs).

The road to Canaan. Some enormous number of the songs in The Sacred Harp are about the embrace of death as release from the pains and tribulations of this life and the expectation of glory in the world hereafter — “the road to glory seems so long” (The Better Land #454), on the trek through the desert or the voyage across the Jordan, to reach the promised land, Canaan (“And see the Canaan that we love”, Jordan #66).

In Florence #121 (a rousing camp meeting song) we brave the perils of the desert to “press for Canaan’s shore”:

(#1) An exceptionally vivid verse 3:

Though storms and hurricanes arise,
The desert all around.
And fiery serpents oft appear
Through the enchanted ground.
Dark nights and clouds and gloomy fear —
And dragons often roar

The hurricanes, serpents, and dragons are all unique in SH 1991 (and neither hurricanes nor dragons are characteristic of the deserts of the Holy Land). The adjective enchanted is also unique, but the book does have the verb enchant (in Spring #188) and the adverb enchantingly (in Murrillo’s Lesson #358).

The life of sin. Another vein of songs explore resisting temptation, renouncing a life of sin, and living in a sinful world. The rolling mid-19th century hymn Mission #204:

(#2)  I’ve sought for bliss in glitt’ring toys / And ranged the luring scenes of vice

“Luring scenes of vice” is quite striking: it has one of only two occurrences of vice in the 1991 SH — this in contrast to the over 100 occurrences of sin(s), sinful, sinning, and sinner(s) — plus the only occurrence of luring (or any other item related to lure) there.

The other occurrence of vice is in Columbus #67, an early 19-century  hymn on being distanced from God:


The vice passage:

4 I once could mourn o’er dying men,
And longed their souls to win;
I travailed for their poor children,
And warned them of their sin;
But now my heart’s so careless grown,
Although they’re drowned in vice,
My bowels o’er them cease to yearn —
My tears have left mine eyes.

Another passage, which might be read as alluding to engaging in vice and frequenting scenes of vice, in Cambridge #287, discussed in my 11/29/11 “Borrowing texts”:

I sometimes think myself inclined
To love Thee, if I could;
But often feel another mind
Averse to all that’s good
… I sometimes go where others go,
But find no comfort there

The vice of drink I’ll consider in a later section. But first, some reflections on vice and sin. In preparation for that, my 11/16/16 posting “But oh, their end, their dreadful end”, with SH hymns on the sin of pride (as I wrote there, “the prideful rich get their comeuppance, deliciously”).

A note on the interpretation of texts. The hymn texts in SH come from many sources, each embedded in a rich sociocultural context of attitudes, beliefs, and purposes. And then they are set afresh and moved into other contexts in new times, so that it’s generally perilous to claim that a particular interpretation is the correct or definitive one. Things are different at different times, for different writers and for different audiences. Which brings me to the understanding of vice (and sin as well).

Vice and sin. On the former, briefly in NOAD:

noun vice: [a] immoral or wicked behavior [vice as acts]; [b] criminal activities involving prostitution, pornography, or drugs [the vice of vice squad]; [c] an immoral or wicked personal characteristic [vice as character traits]; [d] a weakness of character or behavior; a bad habit [or even merely a guilty pleasure]: cigars happen to be my father’s vice.

A longer version in Wikipedia:

Vice is a practice, behaviour, or habit generally considered immoral, sinful, criminal, rude, taboo, depraved, or degrading in the associated society [NOAD [a]]. In more minor usage, vice can refer to a fault, a negative character trait, a defect, an infirmity[NOAD [c]], or a bad or unhealthy habit (such as an addiction to smoking) [NOAD [d]]. … Synonyms for vice include fault, sin, depravity, iniquity, wickedness, and corruption.

… Christians believe there are two kinds of vice:

– Vices that come from the physical organism as instincts, which can become perverse [literally turned away from the state of nature] (such as lust)

– Vices that come from false idolatry in the spiritual realm

The first kind of vice, though sinful, is believed less serious than the second. Vices recognized as spiritual by Christians include blasphemy (holiness betrayed), apostasy (faith betrayed), despair (hope betrayed), hatred (love betrayed), and indifference (scripturally, a “hardened heart”). Christian theologians have reasoned that the most destructive vice equates to a certain type of pride or the complete idolatry of the self. It is argued that through this vice, which is essentially competitive, all the worst evils come into being. In Christian theology, it originally led to the Fall of Man, and, as a purely diabolical spiritual vice, it outweighs anything else often condemned by the Church.

(It’s the vice or sin of pride that figures in the SH settings of “But oh, their end, their dreadful end”.)

NOAD on sin, where the concept is explicity linked to “God’s law”:

noun sin: [a] an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law: a sin in the eyes of God | the human capacity for sin. [b, a weakened, secular sense] an act regarded as a serious or regrettable fault, offense, or omission: he committed the unforgivable sin of refusing to give interviews | humorous:  with air like this, it’s a sin not to go out.

That brings us to the Seven Deadlies. From Wikipedia:

The seven deadly sins, also known as the capital vices or cardinal sins, is a grouping and classification of Catholic origin, of vices. Behaviours or habits are classified under this category if they directly give birth to other immoralities. According to the standard list, they are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth, which are also contrary to the seven virtues. These sins are often thought to be abuses or excessive versions of one’s natural faculties or passions (for example, gluttony abuses one’s desire to eat).

Also with a Roman Catholic origin, but with more specific consequences, is the division of sins into grave, mortal sins (which, if not repented, result in damnation) and lesser, venial sins. From Wikipedia:

A mortal sin (Latin: peccatum mortale), in Catholic theology, is a gravely sinful act, which can lead to damnation if a person does not repent of the sin before death. A sin is considered to be “mortal” when its quality is such that it leads to a separation of that person from God’s saving grace. This type of sin should be distinguished from a venial sin that simply leads to a weakening of a person’s relationship with God. Despite its gravity, a person can repent of having committed a mortal sin. Such repentance is the primary requisite for forgiveness and absolution

… Although the Church itself does not provide a precise list of mortal sins or divide actions into mortal and venial categories, Church documents do name certain “grave sins” as well as “offenses” and “actions” whose subject-matter is considered to be grave. For example, in the area of human sexuality, the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the following actions can involve increased gravity: extramarital sex, divorce (but not legitimate separation), and masturbation.

Among the grave sins are masturbation, fornication (sexual intercourse outside of marriage), pornography, and homosexual practices. Also: abortion, apostasy, blasphemy, participation in Freemasonry, incest, murder, perjury, practicing magic or sorcery, sacrilege, and suicide.

But of special interest to me are masturbation, fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices, all of which I have engaged in unrepentingly (even celebratorily). The Roman Catholic Church considers homosexual acts to be “grave sins”, “intrinsically disordered”, and “contrary to the natural law”. Other churches — notably the Mormons and fundangelical Protestant churches — take related positions.

So I wonder about warnings against the “lures of vice”, oblique allusions to dens of vice,  and the like in Sacred Harp songs.

But, but, but… In general, singing music doesn’t commit the singer to the sentiments in the lyrics, though there are some texts that are really hard to swallow. In the SH, Stafford #78 has the Isaac Watts text:

See what a living stone
The builders did refuse,
Yet God hath built his Church thereon,
In spite of env’ous Jews.

This is one of four SH songs with Jews in it — the other three have the line “So to the Jews old Canaan stood”, which is unproblematic — and many singers (we do have Jewish singers, by the way) balk at “env’ous Jews”, so that some have altered the text to “The builders did despise … ‘Tis marvellous in our eyes”. Altering texts in ways small and large is common, as we’ll see below.

And then there’s a consideration special to the community of Sacred Harp singers, which holds with surprising tenacity to the position that at singings, doctrinal matters must not be discussed (there are prayers, but they are all-embracing and mostly thankful, rather than recitations of belief). Otherwise, the world of small Protestant churches is given to passionate schisms on points of belief; these differences are to be put aside at singings, which are significant social events (food is shared) and also egalitarian in spirit. So I’m not going to be subjected to fulminations about lgbt people. Or barred from singing because of my gravely sinful ways.

Finally, there’s the fact that there’s some deep weirdness in the SH texts, some of which take expressions and images from the Book of Revelation. So everybody’s going to be singing lines they would not assent to.

And now I’m able to turn from textual allusions to sins and move to…

An SH song indisputably about vice. Specifically, #334 O Come Away:

(#4) You can hear the banging of the Salvation Army drum

Singers are inclined to get the giggles at lines like the following, though they were meant with deep earnestness:

Come hail the day that celebrates
The ransom of th’inebriates
From all that does intoxicate

Ye come our sinking friends to save,
And rescue from a drunkard’s grave

Ye who with taste perverted
Have seized the cup, and drank it up

(Not surprisingly, this is one of only two occurrences of perverted (or related words) in the Sacred Harp.)

Come, join us in our holy aim,
The poor besotted to reclaim

My personal response to singing this song for the first time (over 30 years ago) was a shock of recognition: the tune was an old friend, from my undergraduate days at Princeton, via this 1960 recording:

(#5) Now on a 2006 two-CD set, with “Krambambuli” as #5

You can listen to the performance here. The songs are mostly drinking songs, but there are also songs of male fellowship and student life, songs of seduction and love, sentimental songs, and rousing hymns to freedom and music (“Die Gedanken sind frei”, “Lob der edlen Musika”). Kunz’s warm baritone suits the music beautifully; I was delighted to discover that this favorite music from my own student days, 60 years ago, was now available in a modern medium (I gave up my vinyl years ago).

The first verse (of many):

Krambambuli, das ist der Titel des Tranks, der sich bei uns bewährt;
er ist ein ganz probates Mittel, wenn uns was Böses widerfährt.
Des Abends spät, des Morgens früh trink ich mein Glas Krambambuli,
Krambimbambambuli, Krambambuli!

[in a clunky literal translation:]
Krambambuli, that is the title of the drink, which proves itself with us;
it is a very effective means when something bad happens to us.
Evenings late, mornings early, I drink my glass of Krambambuli,
Krambimbambambuli, Krambambuli!

A rousing drinking song converted to a temperance hymn.

On the history of the song, from Wikipedia:

Krambambula is an alcoholic mix drink or cocktail that typically consists of red wine and various kinds of liquor, including gin, vodka, or rum. There are many different recipes. Commercially produced versions may also be available in some areas.

… A red-colored cherry liqueur called Krambambuli was formerly produced by a distillery in Danzig (Gdańsk) established by Ambrosius Vermöllen, a Mennonite immigrant from De Lier in Holland, who received Danzig citizenship on 6 July 1598. In 1704 the production moved to new premises in the Breitgasse lane marked with the animal symbol of a salmon (German: Lachs) on the façade; hence the brand was named Der Lachs zu Danzig. The distillery also produced the famous Danziger Goldwasser liqueur; it was destroyed during World War II and the rebuilt site today houses a restaurant.

In the jargon of German student fraternities, the word Krambambuli was used to identify various drinks such as mulled wine (Glühwein) and Feuerzangenbowle. The popularity of the word was associated to a large degree with Der Krambambulist, a commercium [academic feast] song [“Gaudeamus igitur” is another] with a prologue and 102 verses that was published in Halle in 1745 by the privy councillor Christoph Friedrich Wedekind (1709–1777) under the pseudonym Crescentius Coromandel.

And on the singer Kunz:

Erich Kunz (20 May 1909 in Vienna – 8 September 1995 in Vienna) was an Austrian operatic light baritone, particularly associated with the roles of Papageno [in The Magic Flute] and Beckmesser [in Meistersinger].

… He made his debut at the Vienna State Opera in 1940, where he quickly established himself as a specialist of Mozart roles such as Figaro, Leporello [Don Giovanni], Guglielmo [Così], Papageno, roles he also sang at the Salzburg Festival and Aix-en-Provence Festival. He was also renowned for his portrayal of Beckmesser, which he sang at the Bayreuth Festival in 1943 and 1951.

… An outstanding singing-actor with a superb sense of comedy, he also enjoyed great success in operetta. Several recorded performances as Dr. Falke in Die Fledermaus are available. (Wikipedia link)

Back in the shapenote singing world, the secular content of the “O Come Away” text apparently was too much for some singers, so a  religious text was provided for the tune in the Southern Harmony (new ed. 1854):

(#6) Now an exhortation to come to Sunday School

2 Responses to “Lexical adventures in the Sacred Harp”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Fond memories of Krambambuli. I majored in German at Harvard before going off to medical school in 1959. In 1958 I attended Harvard Summer School. To my surprise, the stuffiest professor in the department – I remember his name only as Dr. Schmidt – an older man with dueling scars on his face – played the piano after lunch and led us in singing German student songs. The experience left me with a lasting ability to sing along with Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture.

    Krambambuli was a favorite. Many years later I first encountered SH 334 O COME AWAY at a Sacred Harp singing and found myself laughing so hard I could barely sing.

    No earlier source for the SH text than Dr. Hauser’s gargantuan Hesperian Harp (1848) has been identified, as far as I know. I hope some day to see that huge tome brought back into print – those songs have been silent for much too long.

  2. Tané Tachyon Says:

    See what a living stone
    The builders did refuse,
    Yet God hath built his Church thereon,
    In spite of env’ous Jews.

    I remember the Santa Cruz Shape Note Society being very Santa Cruz-ish and changing it to env’ous *Dudes*.

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