I spent the weekend at the UK Sacred Harp Convention, singing blood curdling hymns to the glory of god, very loudly with a hundred or so others. Great fun so it was. There’s something joyous about hollering out a hymn that opens with the line “And am I born to die?” and ends with the stanza
Waked by the trumpet’s sound
I from my grave shall rise
And see the Judge in glory crowned
And see the flaming skies
Especially if you’re stood in the middle of a hollow square with the altos behind you hitting a high note that lifts every hair on the back of you neck.
Anyhow, at one point during the Saturday evening social I found myself arguing that, although we singers today may feel grateful to those congregations of singers down the years who have sung these songs and handed the practice down to succeeding generations, there’s no requirement to be grateful, or even to go hunting for ‘authenticity’. Every generation that’s sung these songs and many others haven’t sung them to preserve them or to pass them on. They’ve sung them because the act of singing them has helped them to get through their lives. The songs we have, we know because successive generations have found them to be worth singing or recording. And we sing them for similar reasons. Future generations can go hang, I sing this stuff because it makes me feel good, not because I have some kind of duty.
“It’s a Darwinian argument,” I said, “Though obviously, I wouldn’t put it like that in Alabama…”