Unlike Gene Kelly dancing his way through Paris, this American went there to sing. The 2nd Annual Sacred Harp France was calling, so I got one of those night flights that leaves you at your hotel the next day, too early to check in. You must amuse yourself for a few hours, so my first stop was St. Chappelle (world’s most lavish display of stained-glass windows). Then an attempt to enter Notre Dame, which was besieged by tourists to see the crown of thorns and other relics, traditionally on display on Good Friday. Then back to my hotel’s neighborhood to identify resources for food, drink, and anything else I might need or want.
Bright and early the next day, I took the train to the Cité Universitaire, being a campus where the world’s nations offer residence halls for students from their respective countries. A student who navigates the process enjoys superb surroundings at a very reasonable rate. Had it only occurred to me to contact the Fondation des Etats Unis when I was a student in Paris!
A woman with a Sacred Harp look about her got off the train at the same stop, and I recognized Albertine. We walked on campus just as Frédéric and Florine, complete with kids and laden with loaners, were pulling into a parking space. After a few moments of meandering, we found the site, with the hollow square beckoning. We had a lovely acoustically supportive room and everything was comme il faut to start singing.
What a treat to see people from last year: my compatriots John, Evelyn, Lauren; the French group: Léopoldine (our chair), Perrine, Franck, Frédéric and Florine. Then there was Geoff from England and other parts, and Werner from London. I missed some of those from last year, but I believe that the Easter weekend exerted its power, and they stayed home (of course, we sang 236 for Easter). People new to me were Georges, Peter, Elizabeth, Marion, Margaret, Julius, Aaron, and others whose names I will capture next time. These gatherings occur as in 19th-century rural America: people would meet only a few times a year, then drive the team of horses back home until the next time.
The gathering was of a decent size, and it was particularly gratifying to see more French singers than last year. I was one of the few Americans to come from the US, as most of the Americans are already living in France. Prayers in French and English to get us off to a good start, and we sang until break.
The familiar sounds of keying and preparing to sing are always exciting. Once we started, I knew why I had come all this way: for the pleasure of sharing this music. Voices were happy and strong, and we sang with vigor (how else?). During one of the breaks, Peter and I were lamenting the decline of singing in general among ordinary folks. He suggested that this might in part explain the current popularity of shape-note singing, which is an activity people do for its own reward, never to rehearse or perform. Other than church, where else can one go just to sing?
I must mention an interesting detail, which I was aware of, but had not considered the consequences for Sacred Harp. When counting on fingers, French and Americans differ. Where an American would hold up index-middle-ring fingers for 1-2-3, the French extend thumb-index-middle fingers. As we know, this matters when indicating choice of verses. One who is not alert to this may get confused, but not for long, because the group carries you along.
Chatting with Frédéric and Florine about this peculiarity, they reminded me of Inglorious Basterds (fictionalized account of the Nazi occupation of France), wherein a British spy blew his cover when ordering 3 drinks: he held up index-middle-ring fingers, not using his thumb. See the scene from the movie (from 10:44) here. Remember the shibboleth in the Old Testament. We groups have our ways of knowing our own.
We had relatively few leaders for the number of singers, so many of us led multiple times. It’s interesting to call a song you sing frequently in your local group, and a rewarding experience to hear the group handle well a song that is unknown to many. Indeed, one of the pleasures of all-day singings is learning songs not sung by your own group. I also like the experience of hearing songs sung at tempi other than what my own group does.
We had our break for dinner on the grounds, except it was damp so we ate in a dining room downstairs. It offered its usual pleasures: learning about fellow singers. Shape-note people don’t seem to lead ordinary lives. Albertine performs in a circus and is sharpening her ax-throwing skills. Julius is completing a Fulbright year in France studying forest management. Evelyn writes about math for publications such as Scientific American. Franck does contra-dancing in Paris. Peter is a Lutheran pastor from Germany. John is on leave from Smith College, currently in Paris with a foundation that promotes American art.
Aaron lives in Lithuania, where he works in theatre. How often does one have the chance to learn first-hand about life in Vilnius? He said that families are intact there, that they prepare their own food (eating out only rarely), and that their music festivals are for enjoyment, i.e., not promoted for profit. Aaron may be the only American who has ever moved to Vilnius, others being military or embassy staff transferred there.
After dinner, we resumed the singing, energized by good food and conversation.
The day’s end brought invitations to singings in our respective towns (such an interesting way to vacation!). So farewell, dear friends, as we take the parting hand. Back to our lives, nourished by memories and fortified with messages delivered in song. “Spirit of grace, be ever nigh; Thy comforts are not made to die” (No. 32b, Distress). After a full day of singing, we adjourned to a pub. A few of us lingered longer, enjoying dinner at a local bistro. Until next year!
Mary Jane Wilkie from NYC
P.S. When setting out for Paris, I had taken a copy of “Windham,” anticipating possible conversation along the way and the chance to promote shape-note singing. It finally happened when I was on line at De Gaulle airport with a family from Denver. I gave the sales pitch for Sacred Harp, and a fasola link. At another airport, I encountered a poetry professor from the University of Virginia. She knew about shape-note singing, so I told her about groups in her vicinity. Who knows? Perhaps one day we’ll meet at a singing.