On the power of music

It begins with Rainbow (SH 344) in Palo Alto CA (where I live now) and ends with Gospel Trumpet (SH 99) in Exeter Township, Berks County PA (the county I grew up in), about 2500 miles away, and it’s about the power of music.

Moving from a California low-slung open-plan church complex (UUCPA: the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto), in a 6/5/22 singing celebrating 50 years of Sacred Harp singing in Palo Alto, which I was able to take part in face to face (and to supply recollections of how I got into shapenote singing, in Columbus OH, and how I became part of Sacred Harp groups in the Bay Area). With Rainbow, an ecstatic hymn of praise.

And then to one of the regular Sacred Harp singings at the Exeter Friends Meeting House, a small stone meeting house built by Pennsylvania Quakers in the 18th century — in January 2019, when a singing of Gospel Trumpet (loud, raw, powerful) was captured on videotape.

The June singing. Our singing is from the hymnbook the Sacred Harp (Denson Revision, 1991 edition), abbreviated SH here, with page numbers from that book. The June celebration of Sacred Harp singing in Palo Alto was actually a year late (because of COVID-19), and then coincided with the departure of the long-time organizer of the peninsula singings, Dan Harper (then the Associate Minister of Religious Education at UUCPA) and his partner, Carol Steinfeld (a writer specializing in ecological pollution prevention issues, particularly water and wastewater, and also a shapenote singer), who were moving back East. It also came during an extraordinary period for me, of (medication-induced) temporary remission from most of my afflictions — well, all the afflictions that are auto-immune. A period when I could walk for miles, without pain or shortness of breath, for the first time in years. Poignantly, it would soon vanish forever, and I knew that. So it was an emotional moment for me.

The setting: the entrance to the UUCPA campus on Charleston Rd in Palo Alto:

(#1) The church is an open and affirming ministry, flying the rainbow flag (not shown here)

Rainbow (SH 344). From my 2/13/17 posting “Rainbow”:

So I’ve posted about rainbow things: rainbow food, rainbow clothing (including rainbow underwear), even rainbow sex toys, and more — but not about the Sacred Harp song Rainbow …, an ecstatic hymn of praise to God for the creation of the world — the mountains, the seas (the melodic figure on “the sea grows calm” is like a breaking wave), and, especially, the rich agricultural land)

The 5-verse text is from Isaac Watts, but SH 344 uses only verses 1 and 5. The full text:


Captured by the power of the music. From my 2/6/22 posting “The SIN and GUILT of a linguist”:

The world of the Sacred Harp. “To save our souls from sin and guilt”. From a tradition whose native home has been, for about 150 years, Primitive Baptist and Methodist churches in the rural South (especially Georgia and Alabama); there’s a Page on this blog inventorying my postings on Sacred Harp music. Participating in this tradition, in both Columbus, Ohio, and the Bay Area of California has been immensely satisfying to me, musically and (because of the community of singers I joined) personally.

Yes, it’s a strange fit. I am a worldly, obtrusively queer nonbelieving college professor in Silicon Valley. The music is “white spirituals”: raw, passionate expression of uncompromising, unvarnished fundamental Christian belief; its most common theme is the glorious reward that will come to the believer as a relief from the pain and woes of this earthly life — in death.

An altered state of consciousness. I believe none of this, but I sing the music because it’s powerful and, in its way, quite beautiful; because it brings me into the community of singers; and because it’s capable, on occasion, of carrying me out of myself into an altered state of being, a kind of ecstasy, a condition that true believers think of as a state of grace, conferred by God. I can’t call this up, I’m just singing the music all-out (the way you sing Sacred Harp), but sometimes it happens. (I’ve written elsewhere about sexual ecstasy and religious ecstasy and related altered states of being — for example, in highly focused activities, in the passion of crowds, and of course under the influence of certain drugs.)

Only certain songs can trigger this state for me, and Gospel Trumpet, SH99, is one of them. (Some discussion of the song, with the music, in my 9/18/16 posting “Another curiosity shelf”.) The text in full:

Hark! How the gospel trumpet sounds!
Through all the world the echo bounds;
And Jesus by redeeming blood
Is bringing sinners home to God
And guides them safely by His word
To endless day.

Thy blood, dear Jesus, once was spilt
To save our souls from sin and guilt,
And sinners now may come to God
And find salvation through Thy blood,
And sail by faith upon that flood
To endless day.

The setting of these words to the Gospel Trumpet tune is crucial to the power of the song.

The 2019 singing.  The location, in Exeter Township in Berks County PA.. From Wikipedia:

The population was 25,500 as of the 2020 census, making it the third-most populous municipality in Berks County after the city of Reading and Spring Township. Daniel Boone Homestead is within its borders. This formerly rural township is now made up of mostly sprawl-oriented developments along U.S. Route 422 (Perkiomen Avenue) and Route 562 (St. Lawrence Avenue / Boyertown Pike.)

The setting for the 2019 singing, the Exeter Friends Meeting House, State Route 662 (Exeter Township), Stonersville, Berks County:

(#3) (Library of Congress photo)

On a map:

(#4) The northern part of Exeter Township is in the middle of this map; the meeting house is located roughly where the route 662 circle is on the map; though the area is mostly countrysde, you can see how close the city of Reading and its eastern suburbs (Mt. Penn and Reiffton) are

The type of singing, from my 5/19/22 posting “Shouting songs”:

This is loud, passionate praise, rooted in the evangelical camp meetings of early 19th-century America (and England and Scotland before that), capable of seizing your body and sliding you towards ecstatic engagement with the message and the music. Somewhat tamed by being captured on the pages of a hymnbook rather than being created live in the fervor of a camp meeting, but still standing out as something special in the Sacred Harp

The actual singing of SH 99 Gospel Trumpet at the Exeter Regular Sacred Harp Singing at Exeter Friends Meeting House in January 2019, depicted here:

(#5) You can watch this spirited singing in a YouTube video here

One more powerful song. Which will bring us back to the June singing in Palo Alto. From my 12/12/11 posting “Black keys”:

The John Newton “Amazing Grace” text (of 1779) was set to many different tunes, not just the sweetly soaring New Britain. Even the current 1991 Sacred Harp has two different settings, the familiar New Britain (SH45t) and the alternative tune Jewett (SH105)

Jewett breaks out explcitly into a shouting song in the chorus (“Shout, shout for glory, / Shout, shout aloud for glory”), though in fact the verses cry out to be sung raw, hard-driving, fast, and loud too. So that the whole thing works as the daddy of all shouting songs — as the Palo Alto singers did it back in June; we launched right into it, my eyes rolled up into my head, and for a couple of minutes I was fully in the grip of the song, barking it out. Wow.

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