The Pros and Cons of Imitating the South

Feb 23, 2016 by

We recently came across this article in a copy of Shape Notes, a newsletter edited by Bob Hall and Ella Wilcox for several years in the Washington, D. C. area. Our good friend, Kat Kinkade wrote this in 1995. It still seems relevant today! Kat was one of the founders of Twin Oaks, the longest surviving income sharing, non-religious commune in the U. S., and author of several books about it. As you can tell from the article she was an enthusiastic and articulate singer.

THE PROS AND CONS OF IMITATING THE SOUTH

by Kat Kinkade, Louisa VA, first published in 1995 in Shape Notes, a newsletter by Bob Hall and Ella Wilcox

I attended the New York State convention in October and listened to Judy Hauff give a talk that dealt with, among other things, the semi-syncopated style that many southern singers use particularly when singing a series of eighth notes. If you’ve been South, you probably recognize what I mean. Take the passage from “New Topia,” (page 212, tenor line on the words “Your joys on earth will soon be gone”) that I would normally have read “Fa mi la la la mi fa la sol la la.” Go to Alabama and you’ll hear this read as “Fa m’la la la m’fa l’sol l’la.” When I first heard this, I thought it was just a relaxed pronunciation, but after a while, I found that my foot was tapping and I was internally bouncing in a way that never had happened to me farther north. I loved the feeling, and I concentrated on learning to do it, because it was so much fun.

Later I discussed this with my home group leader, John delRe, and he sprung it on the unsuspecting group by leading the basses into a syncopated entrance to the chorus of “Evening Shade.” (Fa s’la s’fa m’la – try it.) The song immediately fell apart. The tenors refused to imitate the entrance, and everybody was rattled. Some weren’t even sure they were on the right page.

To settle my mind on the matter, I put the question to a wonderful and knowledgeable Southern singer, and he vehemently expressed the opinion that this syncopated style is not correct, but comes from inadequate musical education. The notes are not syncopated on the page, and should not, in his opinion, be syncopated by the singers. So I went South again and listened some more. What I observed is that some Southerners do it and some don’t. It probably depends on what family one belongs to.

After that, I decided I would make a practice of doing what the local singers do, wherever I happen to be singing, but I am always pleased if the locals are syncopating the faster songs, because I love the rhythm and sparkle.

Judy keeps spreading the gospel of syncopated eighth notes, and I’m joining her in the campaign — not because that’s the way it’s done in the South, but because I like doing it, and I think other people will enjoy it once they get the hang of it.

In my opinion, this is by far the best reason to imitate the Southerners. You can talk to me about being respectful of their history and tradition, and I’ll agree, up to a point. You can take a folklorist’s position and strive for an “authentic” style, and that’s your privilege, if you’re into folk arts. But shape-note singing is not a folk art to me. It’s not an arcane pastime that is interesting because it comes from a foreign culture. It is music that thrills me to my toes; it appeals to my highest and best emotions. I would rather sing Sacred Harp than do anything else in the world. In the profoundest sense, and with all due respect, this music is mine.

Because it is mine, I reserve the right to copy or not to copy what the Southern singers do. I am still mulling over the question of whether to drift into a Southern accent when I sing Sacred Harp. Should I abandon my habit of distinct enunciation? Should I let go of final d’s and t’s? Is it a mortal sin to let one’s natural vibrato ring out on the treble? I haven’t made up my mind.

There is one musical argument in favor of imitating the Southern pronunciation. In all choral singing, chords, literally tune better if everybody pronounces the vowels the same way. So when in Alabama I find myself drifting toward the Southern pronunciation of words like “pure”, “heaven”, “bound”, and so forth. I feel a little silly when I experiment with this, but, of course, nobody notices. Why should they?

Singing in my home territory is another matter. If this music is ours — and one can argue that it became ours as soon as the ’91 Denson revision was made available — then it makes some sense to be natural with it, to sing it as it appears to us, as we feel it. Most of us are not used to swinging with our hymns. There’s nothing innately unmusical about our northern accents; we are accustomed to a perfectly respectable minor scale that doesn’t raise the sixth tone.  Contact with other regions’ customs and style is necessarily limited to those who can find the time and money to travel a lot. So I don’t think it is a good idea to make a big deal about doing everything the South does, causing feelings of inferiority in some people and of rebellion in others. Within reasonable limits, I think each group will seek and find what feels and sounds good, and maybe some of it will some day be as good as Alabama singing, in its own distinct way.

But I am theorizing. For myself, there is nothing closer to ecstasy than an Alabama singing convention with a handful of full-voiced, passion-driven Northerners among the crowd. Count me in.

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