Alabama Sacred Harp Singers

Southern Journey, Vol. 10: And Glory Shone Around

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It is fortunate that musical documentation is unlike Hollywood films, at least most of the time. When it comes time for a follow-up or a second volume in a worthwhile series of recordings, producers do not have to approach the project as if it was a sequel that must equal, and even outdo, the first volume. Imagine if this -- the second volume in a series of recordings famed musicologist Alan Lomax made of the shape note style of choir singing -- had the same relationship with its predecessor as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II had with the first film in that series. Listeners who take their shape note singing seriously may be aghast at this comparison, yet these films and recordings do share at least a few aspects of rural, backwoods weirdness.

The hymns featured here, part of a collection published as The Sacred Harp, could have actually become something much more mainstream with a few twists and turns in theological history, such as a Pope that became obsessed with Appalachia. That might have meant that this approach to choir singing, and its related innovations in notation, might have become the norm in choral activity, rather than the sort of esoteric art producers such as Lomax like to look in on. This in turn could have meant an enormous difference in the sort of harmonic intervals listeners consider "normal," just to mention one aspect.

As things actually stand, shape note singing winds up having much in common with many other styles of music, all quite different from each other but sharing aspects of the unusual. It is often mistaken for Bulgarian choir music as well as avant-garde choral composition. Following a short spoken introduction, the opening, "Newburgh," plunges the listener into this river of song -- for the uninitiated, it is a bit like the mean uncle who throws a kid off the dock, hoping this will teach him to swim in a hurry. The best description of this music may be found in one's own twisted dreams, in which a scientist figures out a way to slow down country and western music until it becomes a kind of sediment, like slabs of rock. Some of these choral pieces resemble a slide guitar blues performance in which sections of the choir are creating the sounds of each string, the voices literally gliding from pitch to pitch like crows on the hunt.

Considering all this, it would really be too much if Southern Journey, Vol. 10: And Glory Shone Around was expected to come across as even more unusual and captivating than the previous Southern Journey, Vol. 9: Harp of a Thousand Strings. In reality, it is more of the same, most likely not even the end of what was recorded, since the folks involved in these choirs have plenty of material as well as the motivation to sing it all day long. As things stand in this Rounder series of Lomax recordings, however, Southern Journey, Vol. 11: Honor the Lamb moves on to an African-American acappella choir, quite a different basket of holy wafers. The thick booklet of liner notes not only provides lyrics to all the songs but complete scores to several of the pieces, as well as detailed information about how the system of singing works and why it was developed.

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