Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention, 2002 (no catalogue number)
Detroit; Span of Life; Desire for Piety; Help me to Sing; Claremont; Confidence; Eternal Day; Windham; Bound for Canaan; Florida; I'm on my Journey Home; Africa; New Jerusalem; Save, Mighty Lord; The Gospel Pool; Exhortation; Ballstown; Green Street; Long Sought Home; Horton; Return Again; Antioch; At Rest; Religion is a Fortune; Odem; Fleeting Days; The Grieved Soul; New Jordan; Plenary; I'll Seek His Blessings.
Three years ago I reviewed a CD of the 1999 Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention, and this disc carries on where the first left off. Certainly, most of the comments I made about the previous recording are applicable to this CD.
One change is that the CD now under review actually contains recordings - made by enthusiast Dan Richardson - not just from one Convention, but from a variety of singing events in Western Massachusetts: the 2000 and 2001 Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Conventions, Young People's Singing 2000, Pioneer Valley All-Day Singing 2001, and a couple of regular local sings.
The approach, and I think it's fair to say the quality, are consistent across all the singing groups. These are not studio recordings, nor even live concert recordings: you don't really get an audience at a Sacred Harp sing - everyone there is a participant. So these could really be termed field recordings.
On most tracks you hear the leader call out the page number in "the book" and pitch the song. Then, except for the odd anthem, it's straight into sounding out the shapes i.e. singing the song through with just the fa-sol-la-mi names, rather than the words. Finally you get a few verses sung with the words.
All of the singing is full-bodied, with most of the participants evidently adopting a "take no prisoners" approach. This is of course just how it should be. Anyone familiar with old recordings from the Southern States (e.g. those made by Alan Lomax, available on Rounder) should find that these present-day New Englanders retain the same spirit and essential joy in singing the material. On only one track, Long Sought Home, do you get any obvious use of dynamics and quite frankly, it's a mistake. There's nothing wrong with the arrangement per se but, when everything else is fairly belted out, this one stands out like a sore thumb.
For the rest, I enjoyed hearing some familiar songs well sung - songs such as Windham, Bound for Canaan and William Billings' mighty Africa. There are also songs which feature familiar words set to, for me at least, an unfamiliar tune (or vice versa: Plenary makes the best use I've yet heard of the tune of Auld Lang Syne). And then there are some which I didn't recognise at all. Above all, the CD is perfect for singing along to - get yourself a copy of the Sacred Harp (1991 revision), choose your part, and make a racket in your living room! If you are a Shape Note fan but don't have a singing in your area, or if you get withdrawal symptoms in the time between your monthly sings, then you'll find much to appreciate in this CD.
For details of the Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention and how to order the CD see www.wmshc.org
Andy Turner - 23.8.02
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