Alabama Sacred Harp Singers

Southern Journey, Vol. 9: Harp of a Thousand Strings

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In the incredibly diversified, sometimes acutely strange world of ethnic music, there are inevitably titles in any collection that the owners may have never listened to all the way through. No sense of dislike might accompany such a relationship between collector and disc; in fact, the opposite can be true with a strong sense of pride and even astonishment felt about such recordings. The huge collection of Alan Lomax's field recordings that has been coming out on Rounder since the late '90s -- some of it released for the first time -- is bound to include some of these types of records -- although obviously there is no single release that somebody has ever listened to all the way through. Which is too bad, come to think of it. Anyway, the ninth volume in the series entitled Southern Journey, subtitled Harp of a Thousand Strings, is probably a contender for this sort of status which, needless to say, means it is also brilliant.

While there are previously unreleased tracks on this 1998 release, for the most part this is not an example of material in this series that has been languishing out of public availability. A subject that is both Southern and essentially religious in nature is sure to have some kind of potential audience in America, and this was one of Lomax's projects that was released almost immediately by the Library of Congress upon completion. The liner notes mention not just the genre's survival as an art form over subsequent generations, but an actual increase in activity, participation, and study of "shape note singing" spreading to countries such as Japan.

A good way to trick someone posing as an expert in esoteric music might just be to bring up Harp of a Thousand Strings. There is a delusion prevalent that some kind of amazing stringed instrument invented by a hillbilly is featured on this recording. For information's sake, there is no harp with 1,000 strings, in fact, the Chinese apparently have set the record in this area with a massive autoharp that has something like ten-dozen strings on it. In reality, there are no stringed instruments anywhere near the performances Lomax taped in Fyffe, Alabama in 1959. The performances are choral selections from the The Sacred Harp, a collection of more than 500 folk hymns first published in the early 19th century. While there are many details involved in what makes this type of choral singing so unique, some of the main musical distinctions involve the lead melody line being carried by the bass voices, the type of intervals that are used in the harmonies, and how the large choirs perceive and interpret a common musical relationship known as "unison."

There is also the emphasis on songs in minor modes, and the influence of polyphonic choral singing going back to the European reformation. Listeners will be struck by the sheer size of choir -- the unusual sound, combined with the fact that this is Alabama and there are people with names such as Reba, Buford, Velma, and Enis leading the songs, may make Yankees cringe, and even run through the neighborhood shouting "The rednecks are coming!" The thick booklet that comes with this CD begins in much the same way as the previous sentence, although in this case, the outcome is not a silly joke. "Listeners may be surprised," the text begins, and it is surely hard to conceive of anyone who would not be surprised by the way these songs sound other than someone who has heard them before.

One of the main reactions will be based around the aforementioned concept of unison. Music listeners tend to have a single-minded conception of what represents singing or playing "together," and anytime this has been challenged by performers, whether the genre be choral music or jazz, there is inevitably a freak-out of some kind. There are also lots of listeners delighted by such performing. After 26 tracks, a few of them spoken word commentary and examples of prayers, the surprise and/or delight may change to a familiarity bordering on irritation.

There might be other kinds of music in this series that are easier to listen to at greater length, yet there are few that honestly mirror aspects of so many other types of music from divergent sources. Since most of the great musical innovators of the 20th century admit -- indeed boast -- about their study of ethnic music, it is not ridiculous to conclude that "shape note singing" may have been greatly influential in many areas. The dominance of fourths and fifths in harmonic movement brings to mind Ornette Coleman's "harmelodics."

The concept of having a choir that all members of the congregation can participate in, rather than a hand-picked, polished chorus, can be traced down to avant garde ventures such as the Portsmouth Sinfonia, or Cornelius Cardew's series of "scratch music" pieces. "Rough" unison playing can be found in New Orleans jazz bands and contemporary brass band ensembles, just for starters.

Other musical references may be simply coincidental, part of an overwhelming natural pattern of aesthetic chaos. Enlarging any collection of these references can be done simply by putting on this CD in a roomful of people just to see what they wind up comparing it to: "Hey, this is the group that influenced the Swingle Singers." "Oh, I like this Eastern European vocal stuff." "Is this the Mormons?" "I like early Celtic music but I can't listen to too much of it." "This is that really weird record by the Animals, isn't it?" Whether or not any of these listeners can make it to the end of this CD more than once, this is a stop on the Southern Journey that everyone ought to make.

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