05 May, 2015

God on his thirsty Zion's hill


Lightning season has started in Tucson. With it comes the year's first real rain. In late afternoon, after the mouse that hangs around my garden had scuttled under a tarp, it began, a quick shower that yielded a rainbow for a few moments; as dusk fell, cloud lightning cast the Santa Catalinas in sharp relief.

It was the end of another sort of drought for me, a drought of awaited news. The job at my local credit union i had been nigh altogether banking on was filled by someone else. So it's back to the search while i work at a temporary job.



As i walked home from an errand this afternoon, i felt like singing Stan Rogers tunes. I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier and looking for one warm line through a land so wild and savage. But another song came unbidden.

Shapenote hymnody remains one of the ways i can access the religious. At a certain musicological remove, albeit, but still a sort of access. The language of early American hymns speaks to a sense of the Divine that, while not that far removed from the patriarchal totalitarianism i was raised with, allows me to see in the religious more nourishing metaphor more than opaque literalism.

Here's a video of the William Billings' "Africa," with lyrics by Isaac Watts, which doesn't represent the truly rambunctious nature of the shapenote sings i've participated in (my favorite, at Maine's Common Ground Fair), but is best representative of both the traditional harmony in octaves, fourths and fifths, and the tradition's disregard as to which gender sings the alto and tenor parts, often as here giving rise to octaves on the melody line. Better still, the Minnesota State Sacred Harp Convention recording, at the beginning of which you'll hear the parts sung once through in their notation, an interesting aural experience for those unaccustomed to shapenote.

But enough nerding. Try singing this at full volume and tell me you don't feel better about your place in the universe.

Now shall my inward joys arise,
And burst into a Song;
Almighty Love inspires my Heart,
And Pleasure tunes my Tongue.
God on his thirsty Sion-Hill
Some Mercy-Drops has thrown,
And solemn Oaths have bound his Love
To show'r Salvation down.
Why do we then indulge our Fears,
Suspicions and Complaints?
Is he a God, and shall his Grace
Grow weary of his saints?