I began writing this post on the regional train that took me back to the Alps after the TGV that took me away from Paris and the jet that took me away from Cork, Ireland. After a week in Cork, Ireland, and the first ever Irish Sacred Harp Convention I’m going to have to readjust once again to life in France. I know it will happen, but I’m hoping that writing about the experience will help speed the process and help me cope with my worst-ever-post-Sacred-Harp-convention syndrome.
Though I have been meaning to write about my very happy winter in Barcelonnette for weeks now I’m afraid that will have to wait a little longer, for my head is still ringing and my heart is still singing from two weeks of vacation, and I can’t yet think or write about anything else.
Worst-ever-post-Sacred-Harp-convention syndrome means best-ever-Sacred-Harp convention, right? Quite a claim. To those familiar with Sacred Harp music this statement might seem strange, since Sacred Harp has only been sung in Cork for about two years. But in this blog post I will explain the very particular combination of circumstances and people that came together in Cork this past weekend to make the First Ireland Sacred Harp Convention the best convention I’ve ever attended.
The story of why there is Sacred Harp singing at all in Cork is interesting, but probably not good material for a blog post. So I tried to represent the most important elements on the map below. Sorry for the Sacred Harp geekiness, but be warned, there may be more on its way.
As Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg, a fellow Wesleyan alum and Sacred Harp singer, pointed out to me in a post-convention gchat, the Sacred Harp convention is a “genius form,” one that often produces “overwhelming” and “revelatory experiences” for the participants. We both agreed, however, that the Cork convention was especially powerful. We hypothesized that this was because of the following double effect:
1) Almost none of the Cork singers had been to a convention before, so they were discovering, en masse, “how amazing Sacred Harp can be” (J.P.K., private correspondence with the author, March 9, 2011). This created enormous energy and joy among the Irish singers.
2) The more experienced singers who came from the U.S., the U.K., Poland, and France had already attended conventions, but they had probably never before seen so many people experiencing a convention for the first time, all at once. The Cork singers’ collective experience was so strong that it allowed the non-Irish singers to rediscover the power of Sacred Harp.
Of course, the pleasant surprise of finding ourselves in the middle of such a “revelatory experience” only heightened the effect for everybody.
The synergy was born early, at the weekly Thursday singing in Camden Palace community art space, where there are normally about 20 singers. In the midst of an installation of masked and costumed figures an influx of between 30 and 40 non-Irish singers sang in Cork for the first time, making much more noise than the Cork singers were used to.
Excitement ran so high that evening that we all headed to Claire’s tiny little rowhouse to sing late into the night. I’m sure her neighbors were terrified.
The next day was full to the brim, even to overflowing. First, we got to see a free concert at the University College Cork’s art gallery. The legendary Andy Irvine, well-known as a member of Planxty and for bringing Eastern European influences into traditional Irish music, played drinking songs, nostalgic songs, protest songs, Woody-Guthrie-inspired songs, and traditional ballads. All while wearing a t-shirt that said “Olive Oil Aficionado.” Many in the audience were in heaven, listening to one of their idols. Afterward, Rob and I got our picture taken with Irvine, and then Karen Ivey, from Alabama, tried to convince him to come to the Sacred Harp singing school that night, to no avail.
Then I was off to Rob’s house to cook for the convention. We had shopped on Wednesday at Cork’s English Market–an indoor market/maze of butchers, cheese stalls, bakeries, organic shops, exotic food stores, fruit and veggies, local smoked fish, butter, eggs–so the small task that remained was to prepare a ton of lentil salad and two apple pies before 7 PM. With the help and company of my new friend Magdalena, from Poland, I eventually got the pies out of the oven and made my way to the singing school taught by David Ivey and Neely Bruce in the UCC Music Department.
Energy was high once again after the singing school, and we all made our way to Crane Lane, where we could compare Murphy’s and Beamish to Guinness. Now, when I say “all,” I mean practically all of us. Old and young, Irish, American and English. How did we all know to go to the same bar? You may answer “cellphones,” but my sociological training urges me to think we were operating with a collective consciousness.
You might have noticed by now that in all of my sociologizing, I talk more about the socializing than the music! I suppose that’s because it was the socializing that made this convention special. I made so many new friends, and saw so many old friends. You’ll meet them all in the photos throughout this post. As you might have noticed from the map above, the convention was shot-through with Wesleyan connections. There were definitely fewer than 6 degrees of separation among the singers, and yet this convention still felt different because it brought so many separate singing communities together. It was as if many Sacred Harp meteoroids all collided in Cork. The impact was so powerful that I’m sure everyone spun off with more than ten new friends. Aaron Kahn and I joked on the flight back to France that it might take years to make that many friends in Paris.
The last and most unprecedented aspect of the convention that I’m going to discuss was the way that it successfully melded Irish culture with Sacred Harp culture. The best example was the Saturday night social, which was held in the upstairs room of a pub called The Long Valley. Here, everyone squeezed in, grabbed a stout, and chatted with whoever they were squeezed in next to. Then, whoever felt like sharing a song asked for everyone’s attention and sang. We heard English drinking songs, ballads sung in Irish, trad music (bodhrán, guitar, accordion, banjo), a New England ballad, sea shanties, Sacred Harp songs, and I backed Rob up on a Irish rebel song. This doesn’t usually happen at socials in the U.S.A., at least not the ones I’ve been to. I liked these impromptu performances, where you sing for a room full of people, with one hand still on your beer. With computers and iPhones always at hand we are forgetting the value of knowing songs by heart. I also loved that we branched out from Sacred Harp and shared all sorts of different kinds of music. Rumor has it that David Ivey said it was the best Sacred Harp social he had ever attended. High praise, coming from a singing school master and the most experienced singer at the convention.
On Sunday night, after we sang #62, Parting Hand, in UCC’s Aula Maxima, we were not quite ready to end the weekend. Through Rob’s dad, Cliff, we were all invited to the weekly meeting of the Cork Singers’ Club, which meets upstairs in a pub across from the old Beamish brewery. There is always a featured singer who sings a number of his or her own songs, but in between anybody in the room can sing. I was astounded by how warmly The Cork Singers’ Club welcomed the invasion of Sacred Harp singers. To me, it seemed anachronistic to sing Sacred Harp there. It seemed too much like the inner sanctum of Irish tradition. But the master of ceremonies invited us to sing quite a few songs. And once we launched into the song, with basses, tenors, altos and trebles scattered all over the room, he would happily sit back in his big green sweater, close his eyes, and enjoy the crazy American music.
Coming back to reality after four days spent in such ecstasy has been hard. For the past week I have been slowly recovering the bits of my mind that insisted on staying a little longer in Cork. The main symptom of this absence of mind was the constant stream of songs flowing through my head and often out of my mouth all week long–in the teacher’s lounge, in the shower, while playing soccer, and on the ski slopes. Finally, after a sleepless night haunted by Planxty songs mixed with fugues from the Sacred Harp, I decided to take action. In the middle of Thursday night, I wrote out the lyrics to “Follow Me Up to Carlow” on a piece of paper, folded it in half, and slipped it in the pocket of my ski jacket. That way, every time I got on the tire-fesse (a ski lift that is literally called a “butt-pull” in French) I could pull out the paper and memorize another verse. I had to master the cacophony in my head somehow. And I had to start preparing for my next trip to Ireland, for you can’t arrive without a song to sing.