Sacred Harp Singing: Glossolalia, Polyphony, and Participatory Singing

What possible value could untrained, localized voices have for singing?  None, especially in this age of commercialism where we can buy the best for our listening pleasure, passive though our listening is.  Could participatory singing be more valuable for community building than the more passive state of “listening” most of us are accustomed to today?  After all, we are comfortable with consumption and the perfection it houses, but is music consumerism best for the hearts and souls of men?

I wouldn’t be wondering about this at all, had my son Hal not asked me about shape note singing and shared that his music appreciation professor at Sewanee was requiring him to attend a shape note singing meeting.  When Hal mentioned shape note singing to me, I remembered my dad talking about singing in the churches he attended as a boy–some of them Primitive Baptist–and how memorable it was for him, though he is now a man grown divided against the Church.

More than once, my dad told me about Elder Golden Harris and my Great Uncle Monroe Simpkins travelling to New York City from Floyd County, Virginia, for a recording session.  Uncle Monroe became so frozen with fear that he could not sing at the recording sessions, leaving Elder Golden Harris to finish the sessions alone.  I even related this in a poem which appears in Floyd County Moonshine.  Just a little superficial research online connects Elder Golden Harris with the rich heritage of shape note singing and American music that emerged from it: blues, blue grass, country, and other popular music, even rock-n-roll.

Well, let’s just cut to the chase: shape note singing is a “low church” activity.  In fact, when the shape note singers are getting warmed up, they explore just four notes in melodies without words, and the warm up practically hinges on glossolalia.  These religious distinctions aside, what I want to explore, though, is polyphony, a type of singing which is disappearing worldwide, church or not.

Polyphony is a musical gift for the people, an awe-inspiring and disordered order which permeates folk as well as religious music.  I would go as far as to call it a “joyful noise.”  Most common in sub-Saharan Africa, polyphonic singing is known to be integral to community building.  Heartfelt, resonant, wrenching…these are words that I can use today to describe this singing, though polyphonic singing really just captures my heart and makes me shut up.

There is something of complex systems in polyphony, where the rules run the show, but the show shifts on a dime.  As the fabric of variable voices erupts, I am rapt.  Albanian, sub-Sarahan, Georgian, Appalachian American, as I search polyphonic singing worldwide, I discover a unity denied people by the recent academic march against universality.  Yet, there it is, universal expression, evident for anyone who really wants to inquire.

Please check out the embedded links below, and last but not least, the bowling balls.  They co-join in spectacular, predictable paths, even through phases of relative chaos.


Luna Ridge

I named this ridge on which I live Luna Ridge, because it seems the moon is never too far away, but the most scintillating moments here have actually been those experienced in the absence of her cool light, when darkness draws its own luminescence from galaxies abroad.  These are moments when I look up into the constellations and immerse my mind in swirls of the Milky Way.

Somehow, staring into this swell of stars electrifies my mind, almost as if the stars intersect with the synaptic networks of my brain cells and communicate fluid fire.  It is true: I am reinvigorated, even enlightened, by these pinpricks of electric light.

At these moments, I am as close to levitation as I will ever be, a helmetless escapee from gravity, reaching outside the confines of my skull.  Is it possible that revival is somehow seated in the stars?

Who really knows?  I am betting, though, that in her time, Marjorie Hope Nicolson knew something about the revival in the stars.  A forgotten American scholar who claimed to be “no feminist” in a time when women wrangled for academic respect, Nicholson pursued a gender free scholarship unimaginable today as she investigated the roles of nature and science in the formation of the literary imagination.  Due to her discipline, she gained an enviable prescience for the science of our day.

Similarly, when I am on Luna Ridge looking into the stars, I don’t waste my time imagining I am a woman.  Forgetful of that fact, I reach from the variegated shadows of night, to snatch revival from dark’s quick-centered time, a revival felt in a moment of timeless ecstasy.  In Nicolson’s words, I am reaching into the aesthetics of the infinite, though I have the benefit of breaking in on a different side of science, one which Nicolson did not know well—the science that remakes entropy, chaos, and decadence into “emergent complexity,” a place where there is an oxymoronic dance of chaos and order, a new order, if you will allow it to be said.

As we ponder the measurement of immeasurable and emergent complexities, even here on Luna Ridge, we can gain confidence—a new order is emerging from the disordered post-Romantic Twentieth Century.

This evening, I will end with Nicolson’s own words as expressed in her critical study published first by Cornell University in 1959, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite, where she argues for a position beyond Wordsworth’s “terror” and fear for Nature’s decay: “From mountains, the mind and soul of man rises again, through Space, to Eternity and Infinity, with awe and reverence for the power of God, to the serene and tranquil peace that passes all understanding.”

I am a respecter of this lady scholar.  She had prescience for what we are only beginning to uncover, a science of emergent complexity where what is beheld resonates between what is predictable and what is not.

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Under Pressure

      A single Mason jar filled with green, undeveloped cherry tomatoes I picked before the first frost and pickled with dill sprigs steals my imagination as I look up at the kitchen soffit where it sits.  For days, I have been caught in emergent expectations for what might be contained there—a storehouse of stories or a cluster of poems—sealed by atmospheric pressure.  Yes, it is true: the writer’s life exists in the indeterminate and vacillating boundaries shared by observation and expression, suspended between what is tactile and what is written, pressured somehow to desire release.

For me, it is gravitas that pushes me to associate observation with expression, to realize analogies and believe they engender communicable truths.  What is that element of grave solemnity that fuels expression, though?  Why can’t I separate gravitas from very real gravity?

The tomatoes float against each other like planets compressed in a closed galaxy, and because they are green and semi-translucent, they glow like so many moons and planets, a universe contained by gravity.  There they are, still and somehow somnolent, until a little shake sends them bumping and bobbing, jockeying to resettle in a pattern of least resistance.

Since I am not a physicist, I know the spheres in the universe are no accident, for they are remnants of something molten having been shaped and cooled by an invisible gravitational force.  I accept this and so many more invisible laws of nature, and I know they have made a difference in life—without us knowing or particularly caring—and we are likely to take them for granted, until somebody begins to think about laws acting in a universe of home canned green tomatoes, until something about their translucent nature spells want, even the gravitas of isolation engendering desire.

The tiny tomatoes have a dense, solemn quietude to them, or is it my own quietude I experience as I reach for them?  It took me hours to process them and to put them there, sitting on the soffit’s ledge, sealed under atmospheric pressure.

 I will likely get that affirmative pop—release—when I undo the seal and serve them to someone for supper.

 In the end, I can barely span the surface of what I want to say about canning these undeveloped tomatoes, even less about the unwinding universe that surrounds me, and yet there is contentment in the apprehension of the laws and the certainty that beneath them all, I have an expression to discover and a message to share.


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