When the acting chairman got up to make the final speech at the end of the First German Sacred Harp Convention, the energy in the Chapel of the Ecumenical Forum in the Hafencity was palpable. The time was 4pm on Sunday, 1st of June, 2014. After two days of non-stop singing, the silence that engulfed the room after the last song was arguably the most stirring sound of the entire event. Of course, I cannot tell what the other people in the room were thinking at that particular moment, but there appeared to be a general, thitherto unarticulated, consensus that something very special had just come to an end.
The dry facts, which state that 67 people, from 11 different countries, sang 187 Sacred Harp songs during the convention weekend, are impressive enough. However, it is not possible to distil the most important information about the convention from the official minutes. No one, for example, recorded how many jokes were told, how many times people laughed, how many hugs and kisses were exchanged or even how many tears were shed. The official documents do not record the interaction between the visitors and the locals, and the amount of effort people put into making the convention a resounding success.
When the announcement was made (at the end of November 2013) that the first ever Sacred Harp convention in Germany was to be held in Hamburg in May 2014, many of us were a little shocked. Hamburg Sacred Harp had only existed since August 2013. The group’s links to the wider Sacred Harp community were tenuous, at best, and we were certainly not familiar with the highly sophisticated and rather intimidating minutiae of Sacred Harp etiquette. None of the Hamburg singers had ever been to a Sacred Harp convention before – let alone staged one. Furthermore, the future of the Hamburg group itself was still rather precarious. In fact, I can remember attending “singings”, shortly before Christmas 2013, where only two other people were present. Under these circumstances, it seemed somewhat ill-advised, if not altogether foolish, to think we could master such a complicated logistical and socio-political undertaking.
Fortunately, however, we were not alone. Our friends and partners in Bremen and Frankfurt were there to offer soothing advice as well as the necessary manpower. Sacred Harp Bremen, which has been active since 2011, had already staged an “all-day singing” in 2012, and was, therefore, our main reference point when it came to convention logistics. Moreover, singers from both the Bremen and Frankfurt groups (founded in 2012) had travelled extensively to attend singings all over Europe and North America, and were, therefore, more familiar with the demands of Sacred Harp tradition than we were. Their knowledge and expertise was invaluable for the planning and execution of the convention in Hamburg.
Of course, not everything went according to plan and it would be misleading to suggest otherwise. Initially, many of us felt overwhelmed by the nature and magnitude of the project and it soon became apparent that we would not have time to submit every single decision to egalitarian deliberation. As a result, well meant suggestions were ignored, emails went unanswered and democratically conceived plans were abandoned in favour of more practicable autocratic solutions. However, I consider it a measure of our trust and commitment to the common cause that we all managed to negotiate a minefield of potentially volatile sensitivities without losing our humour and mutual respect. The bond between the various Sacred Harp communities in Germany has been strengthened by the shared experience and I consider it a great privilege to have been part of the team that organised the First German Sacred Harp Convention.
Indeed, the success of the convention was reliant on the goodwill and support of many people, none more so than those who volunteered to host the visiting singers. It is obvious from the overwhelming stream of positive feedback we have received (and are still receiving) that everyone was made to feel welcome and comfortable in Hamburg. More than anything, it is testimony to the hospitality of our hosts that so many of our visitors have expressed a desire to revisit Hamburg as soon as possible. On behalf of the Sacred Harp community, I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to all those who offered our guests accommodation during the convention.
Apart from the singing and the accommodation, it was almost impossible not to be impressed with the so-called “dinner-on-the-grounds” at the First German Sacred Harp Convention. It is Sacred Harp tradition for the convention hosts to provide food and drink for the visiting singers. However, it was still not clear whether we could feed our guests up until the very last days before the event. By that time, the organising committee had more or less deferred responsibility for the provision of sustenance to the gods. Certainly, none of us expected the miraculous feast that led one experienced American Sacred Harp singer to declare that it was the best dinner-on-the-grounds he had ever seen outside the southern states of America. Frankly, I have got no idea where all the food came from but it turned out to be a truly wondrous spread. I would like to thank everyone who contributed. However, in this regard, Jutta Boysen deserves particular credit, as she worked tirelessly to coordinate the food at a time when many of us considered it to be a bit of a lost cause. Thankfully, she proved us all wrong.
I learned a great deal about Sacred Harp singing during the convention, just by listening to more experienced members of the community. It became apparent, as one of the visiting singers suggested, that there is much more to Sacred Harp singing than just singing. Of course, the shared experience of the communal song is central to the whole venture, and the likelihood of spontaneous polyphonic a-cappella outbursts seems to increase in proportion to the number of singers in the room – a phenomenon that could be studied in Hamburg’s cafes, bars and public transport system throughout the convention weekend.
Raising your voice to sing from the stirring Sacred Harp collection can be an uplifting experience at the best of times. However, when you do it together with nearly seventy other people, the effect can be quite overwhelming. A sense of community is integral to the Sacred Harp experience and the informal “social” evening, which is traditionally held on the first night of the convention, is designed to foster cohesion by encouraging social interaction between locals and the foreign singers. Remarkably, the group did appear to become more homogenous, and the singing more intense, on the second day of the convention.
The social evening in Hamburg was held in a studio space in the Chemnitzstraße, which was offered to us, free of charge, by the local artist Andreas Oldörp. I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Mr Oldörp, on behalf of the Sacred Harp community, for his selfless support throughout the convention. With regard to the social evening, I would also like to thank O.G. Joachimsson for allowing us a preview of his remarkable documentary about the formation and development of Sacred Harp Bremen. The film, which has not yet been officially released, was shown for the first time on the Saturday night, and it added a unique flavour to the proceedings.
There were many highlights during the First German Sacred Harp Convention 2014. However, I would like to accentuate the role of our Chaplain, Zack Lindahl, who came all the way from Enånger (Sweden) to conduct prayers and offer blessings. I would also like to thank Michael Walker, from Sacred Harp London, who conducted the traditional lesson in recognition of the sick and housebound. In a thought provoking speech, Michael emphasised the therapeutic properties of meditation and the state of “loving kindness” (the title of a Sacred Harp song) as a central precondition for a healthy relationship with one’s surrounding environment.
If I had to choose one particular standout moment during the convention weekend, however, it would have to be Calum’s memorial lesson for the deceased, and the rousing rendition of the song that directly followed it. It was always going to be a risk to entrust such a weighty task as honouring the recently deceased to a sixteen year-old. However, Calum managed to win everyone’s respect and affection with his unique honesty and profound sensitivity. Many people, including myself, were deeply moved by his words, which seemed to galvanise the group, lending it even more unity and vigour during the subsequent singing session.
To conclude, I would like to thank all those involved in making the Hamburg convention such a success. The feeling of unselfish goodwill and camaraderie among the singers, organisers and ancillary helpers will be something I will never forget. In many ways, the convention felt like a blueprint for a better society – one in which differences of opinion were not brushed aside but openly discussed, and even modified, in a spirit of mutual respect. The Americans sang with the Europeans, the Atheists with the believers, the traditionalists with the reformists and we all learned from each other. Where disparities did seem insurmountable, we agreed to disagree, and the diversity was accommodated within the compliant and tolerant structure of the community. In my opinion, Sacred Harp is capable of absorbing all sorts of ideas, because, ultimately, the singers know that they are reliant on each other’s voices to create that explicitly divine noise.