April 29, 2009

Melancholy Day 419 - Tiny Ambiguity in the 1991 Sacred Harp

Visiting singer & teacher Tim Eriksen held a singing school in Berkeley the Saturday before last Sunday's Golden Gate Sacred Harp Convention. For most of the class, we listened to the fundamentals of music & a brief history of folk hymns in America, with a few songs taught part by part. There was a fairly reverent & glad feeling in the room. Then, near the end, after we had sung a bit, he asked if there were any specific songs that confused people. He began going over the parts to page 419, Melancholy Day (composed in 1859 by H.S. Reese to an especially dark text by Isaac Watts. I love this song & try to conduct it super slow, in four. Mr Eriksen said something about how it proves you can make a lot of music without a lot of chords - this song's harmonies are more modal than chordal.) But then the class disintegrated around two ambiguous measures, with everyone arguing & talking over each other - in that special way a well-behaved classroom can combust.

I had to run out the door & go to work at that moment, & I was a bit confused that we were dwelling on this, I don't know how it resolved. But when Mr Greg Freeman led it the next day, it threw me. Look at the way the text is printed for "To those who have no God." The text lines up differently below the treble, alto, & tenor. (In vocal music, when notes are slurred together, it generally means they're sung on one syllable.) We've been singing the tenor lining up incorrectly with the words below it, even tho the way it's slurred lines up with the alto perfectly. In the next edition, they should put the correct words below the tenor. This recording of Alabama's United Sacred Harp Convention in 1959 corroborates the correct way:

Mr David Wright of Seattle, Washington, (in the comment below) tells us that it's an Alan Lomax recording, released in 1977. "To those who have no God" is at 1:07, (the first time thru they sing the shaped-notes.) This short essay about an extremely subtle detail was mainly an excuse to post this excellent song. Here's the lyrics:
Death, ’tis a melancholy day,
To those who have no God,
When the poor soul is forced away
To seek her last abode.

In vain to heav’n she lifts her eyes,
For guilt, a wearing chain
Still drags her downward from the skies
To darkness, fire, & pain.
Isaac Watts' Hymn 123 - Funeral Hymn-Death Dreadful, or Delightful can be read in context HERE. Looks like there's other American folksongs that use the other verses, I'd like to hear them if anyone knows where they can be found!


Will Fitzgerald said...

Is it ambiguous or just confusing?

ß. Andrigon said...

It's true, when I started writing this post I thought it was an ambiguity, but it resolved itself into merely confusing.

David Wright said...

Thank you for seizing the opportunity to post this song! This is one of my favorite Sacred Harp recordings ever. The accenting and "pulse" and unity of the class are amazing. It is from 1959 (and from the United Convention), not 1977, BTW.

Yes, the tenor should be sung as slurred, with the words under the alto part. Alas, we (in Seattle) don't sing it often enough to have established any particular way (correct or incorrect) of singing it.

Sorry I missed last weekend!

ß. Andrigon said...

Thanks, David, I fixed the recording's attribution. I was just copying my iTunes file info - so hopefully you're more right than whoever entered that. Listen to your recording & make sure they're identical.

David Wright said...

It is so fixed in my memory from having listened to it so many times, I'm pretty sure if I could transfer the sound directly from my inner ear onto some sound recording medium like with the videotape in The Ring, it would sound just like that.

It's an Alan Lomax recording. I think it was released on an album in 1977 (on New World Records) -- so maybe that's where that date came from -- and more recently on Rounder's Alan Lomax/Southern Journey series.