Barring It All, Part 1

Feb 18, 2014 by

Thanks to some perceptive comments on fasola-songwriters and elsewhere, I’m going to revisit my previous post on rhythm and meter.  Two comments that intrigued me were Leah Velleman’s idea that there might be a generative theory of rhythm that applies to shape-note hymnody and Tarik Wareh’s observation that rhythm and the placement of bar lines are not independent phenomena.  Another suggestion, emailed by a friend, was to look at higher-level accents.

I hope you’re not sick of LOUISIANA (SH 207), because I’d like to start there again.  I had classified settings of the text as “even” if their accented syllables were evenly spaced.  However, as Leah and others pointed out, I allowed some fudging at the end of lines, so my “even” rhythms weren’t strictly even.  Here’s a rhythmic setting of “Come, little children” that is completely even.  Each accented syllable starts a bar, with the unaccented syllable or syllables following it.  The slurs indicate the structure of the poetry.

Example 1: Strictly even rhythm.

But this seems all wrong.  There’s nowhere for the singers to breathe between phrases.  Moreover, 2/4 is the only common choice of barring that preserves the musical symmetry we expect between the parallel two-line phrases of text.  Here’s what happens if we bar in 4/4:

Example 2: Barring Example 1 in 4/4.

However, if we add a little time in the middle of the verse, order is restored:

Example 3: Adding some time in the middle of the verse.

This rhythm, though no longer “even” in terms of the pattern of accented syllables, may be grouped into higher-level units of two, four, or eight measures.  Lengthening “morsel” (and “postle”) more or less gives a second accented syllable to that line, balancing the first line:

Come, LIT-tle CHIL-dren, NOW we MAY

The “swung” version of this pattern, barred in 6/4, with each two-note grouping replaced by a half note followed by a quarter note, is exactly the rhythm of the first four lines of Walker’s BABE OF BETHLEHEM (ShH 103).

Example 4: ShH 103 BABE OF BETHLEHEM.

However, the rhythm in Example 3 is not actually the rhythm of LOUISIANA, which goes like this:

Example 5: Text setting of LOUISIANA in The Sacred Harp, p. 207.

What I take from this is that giving more breathing space between lines (or at least pairs of lines) can take precedence over the binary symmetry of Examples 3 and 4—that is, it is acceptable and often desirable to have five-measure phrases.   After all, we’re singing, not dancing.  Moreover, making “Come” a half note creates a much easier entrance for the class and the leader.

Let’s turn now to the long-short-short-long rhythm of THE CHURCH’S DESOLATION (SH 89).  I called this pattern “uneven,” but it’s actually uneven in a specific way: the distance between successive accented syllables alternates between two beats and four beats.  I’ve put dotted lines before each accented syllable.

Example 6: THE CHURCH’S DESOLATION rhythm.

There is no obvious way to bar this rhythm.  If I were not familiar with the song, I would bar it in 3/2, which emphasizes the parallel long-short-short-long rhythmic patterns and divides each line of poetry in half–a division that is also present in the poetry of the first and third lines.

Example 7: Barring THE CHURCH’S DESOLATION rhythm in 3/2.

As you know if you’ve looked at the song, this is not the way this rhythm is actually barred:

Example 8: Actual barring of THE CHURCH’S DESOLATION rhythm.

Is the rhythm, then, misbarred in The Sacred Harp?  The “misbarring” football has been kicked around on fasola-discussions and elsewhere. And in fact, when arrangers “reform” earlier settings of a tune that has the long-short-short-long rhythm, they often change a 4/4 or 2/2 barring, which is typical in early shape-note sources, to a 3/2 barring—see my discussion of the history of BOURBON.  An opposite phenomenon happens when a 3/2, reformed-harmony song like Lowell Mason’s GRAVITY (CB 266t / ShH 4b) or BOYLSTON (CB 447t) enters the shape-note world and is barred in duple time.  Although it’s true that the accents of the poetry don’t line up as well with the text, Example 8 has more life in it than Example 7.  There’s a polyrhythm—a rhythm produced when the same unit of time is simultaneously divided in two different ways—between the duple-time pattern of the barring and the triple-time pattern of the note values and text that is just soooo satisfying.  And since Sacred Harp singers “beat time” with their arms while singing, the duple-time rhythm is embodied, as well (see this video, starting at 2:00).  So I wouldn’t say the rhythm is mis-anything, any more than I would say that shape-note harmonies are “incorrect.”*

I can see that I’ll have more to say on the subject.  I still haven’t addressed Tarik’s question of why I consider the settings of THE DYING CALIFORNIAN in the Denson and Cooper Sacred Harps to be fundamentally different.  And I wanted to look at different meters and songs that have more complex interactions between musical and textual rhythms, though let’s not say “misbarring.” I’d love to discuss songs like Walker’s TENDER-HEARTED CHRISTIAN (ShH 270) as well.  Let’s call this post “Part 1.”

*My preference for the barring in Example 8 raises the question of whether it is appropriate for a hymn to have “life,” at least in this obviously rhythmic way.  If sung quickly, the rhythm of THE CHURCH’S DESOLATION does, I think, clash with the gravity of the words.  The nineteenth-century reformers sought to make church music more reverential.  One of the ways they did was to slow tempos and regularize rhythms and harmonies.  “Unreformed” shape-note music is, mostly, not part of church worship.

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  1. The text of THE CHURCH’S DESOLATION in the Sacred Harp is all about life and lifelessness:

    Once she was all alive to Thee
    And thousands were converted,
    But now a sad reverse we see,
    Her glory is departed.

    So I think the lively barring is especially appropriate.

    • Good point, Will!

      • Thomas Ward

        You know, Rachel, one song I’ve always wondered about with regard to barring (and meter) is “Return Again.” It always seemed weird to me that the first 6 measures are written out in duple meter, even though I think we tend to feel it in triple meter (“keep no LONger at a DIStance, shine upON us from on HIGH,” as opposed to “KEEP no LONGer AT a DIStance, SHINE upON us FROM on HIGH”). Perhaps it’s barred this way because AS POETRY, it’s trochaic, with the stress falling on the first, third, fifth, and seventh syllables, even though musically the main stresses are felt only on the third and seventh syllables. In other words, the barring corresponds more closely to the poem as text than to the lyric as song. Or maybe it’s written in 2/4 to accommodate what always feels to me like a kind of hiccup in measure 13…

        • (For anyone who doesn’t know RETURN AGAIN, it’s here.) In this post, I lumped the rhythm of RETURN AGAIN in with PRINCETON (ShH 340t) and MY NATIVE LAND (ShH 253 / CB 416), both of which are also barred in duple meter. However, the bars actually start in a different place (at the beginning of the text rather than after the first two syllables). I agree with you that I feel the triple-time pattern strongly in RETURN AGAIN—and I, at least, feel it more strongly than I do with the other two. It’s one of the reasons I like the song. The song is lively, and it’s about longing for renewal, literal or spiritual. I think tempo may be a confounding factor. Here’s an experiment. Try singing RETURN AGAIN slowly and gently, maybe even with a different text. I don’t feel the triple rhythm as strongly. What is your experience?