Lowell Mason

Singing across the centuries

Excoriated musical Americana lives on with Portland Sacred Harp’s recent shape note singing convention

By DANIEL HEILA

I was running a bit late for my visit to Portland Sacred Harp’s Pacific Northwest Convention at the Laurelhurst Club. The parking options were few on Ankeny Street down along the bottom of Laurelhurst Park, but I found a tight space about a quarter mile up the street from the club and squeezed in. Lucky me, since the stroll down to the event was alongside giant evergreens, quiet pathways, and distant green swards where folks walked or jogged, caught up in the serenity of the place. I admit, I was timid about attending the event. I am a bit of an introvert, and, although I like to sing, I was not sure I wanted to put myself out there in a crowd of strangers.

I shouldn’t have worried. That crowd on this October day was nowhere to be found. Instead, inside the woody confines of the lodge ballroom (complete with crackling fireplace blaze) I found a familiar family of folkways enthusiasts. Someone’s grandpa greeted me at the doorway with a smile (there was a definite edge of interest at my unfamiliar face) and thrust a loaner copy of The Sacred Harp songbook into my empty hands. I filled out a name tag with the dorky tagline “Talk to me about Sacred Harp!”, slapped it on my lapel and headed into my foray.

The singers were on a break and milling about saying hello to friends and being introduced to new faces. Volunteers were going about their duties, one of which was preparing the long banquet table for the potluck lunch to come at noon. The comforting smells issuing from the kitchen piqued my appetite, and I sheepishly considered being late to my next appointment. A glance around the room revealed a demographic that I have considerable experience with via the New England contradancing scene: mostly 30-60ish men and women, a handful of seniors and people of color, a few brave teens and twenty‑somethings, and a marauding flock of tweens, tots, and rug rats of various sizes. I started to relax.

Portland Sacred Harp performed shape note music in October. Photo by Daniel Heila.
Portland Sacred Harp performed shape note music in October.

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