Kudzu: Thoughts of an Upstart on the 91st United Convention

by Walter Graff

first published in The Chicago Sacred Harp Newsletter, Volume 10, No 2, December 1994
used by permission of author

That must be it, I thought. The large-leafed vine had climbed over the fence and the nearby tree, down the roadside ditch and up the shoulder of Oak Grove Church Road, and seemed even to grab for my tires as I drove by. This was my first sighting of the fabled kudzu, the botanical newcomer that has had such an impact on Alabama and Georgia.

Well, I was a newcomer, too, an upstart attending my first Southern singing. It had been three years since I had been unexpectedly infected by the S.H. virus at the Second Minnesota Convention, three years of singing with the Twin Cities group, and three years' nagging and prodding by my daughter and her husband (Meg and Jim Parsons) and by Keith and Jenny Willard. "you have to go South," they all said.

Intellectually, I knew what they meant. If you have bewitched by this extraordinary phenomenon, if it has made a home inside you, if its tunes and texts demand your attention at all hours, if you wonder at the years of your ignorance, if you have a dawning realization of what Jeff and Shelbie Sheppard mean they say, "There's more to Sacred Harp than the singing," if you understand that this is an organic, living tradition, then it should be obvious that you need to experience it at its source. And then there is the sensible reason that it is simple courtesy to return the visits of Southerners and support their singings as they have ours.

Mine was one of the first cars to arrive that foggy Saturday at Emmaus church, an utterly plain brick meeting house that had been rebuilt after a 1988 fire destroyed the original. The interior--floors, walls, and ceiling--were all the same golden wood. ("All tongue-and-groove," one of the local gentleman had proudly told me that morning on the porch, and then proceeded to explain the term to me, confident that a city boy would not have otherwise known.) The reconstruction had clearly been an act of love. While the architecture was exceedingly simple, it had been executed with craftsmanship and care.

Out of respect for the tradition, and mindful of the example of kudzu, this newcomer was determined not to intrude upon the occasion. I had dressed discreetly (I am of a generation to whom wearing a tie is not unnatural). I took a seat early in the second row and to the side, and waited.

The waiting was not a burden; it was part of the treat. The last few minutes before a convention starts are always magical for me. Familiar people already in place or moving toward their seats; greetings exchanged; the host committees apparent from their more urgent movements and conversations--and over all, an exciting, palpable sense of anticipation. (I always say that the first three minutes are the best part of any movie, but this is a thousand times better.)

Now the moment! With only the briefest warning, Jerry Enright, with movements that look so natural and comfortable, "calls us to order" by launching us into the first tune. The glowing wood of the interior promised glorious sound, and from the very first millisecond of the first note, proved that it did not lie. the sound and the energy is astounding.

I love the Midwest Convention. I love the way even our small semimonthly singing can get a tune just right, can nail it, sometimes to our own surprise. But the sound that envelopes me now in little Emmaus is somehow beyond all that. It is operating in a different plane. It is full and rich and the harmonies are clear and sharp and sweet and it all flows over and through you and into every fiber of the golden wood and tumbles out through the open windows like a viscous flood. We are happily drowning in it.

Now, if this is true, and not merely my private ranting, why should it be so? I believe that there are both tangible and intangible reasons. This roomful of singers simply has many more years of experience per capita than our Northern singings. On Sunday, I sat between two veterans who barely looked at their books all day, even for the notes, unless one of the 1991 additions was called. Should we wonder that the accumulated depth of experience should make an objective difference? Songs which I have never or rarely heard, and songs (to be honest) which I have fumbled through and wondered why they were still in the book, were all brought to life with perfect ease, their charms clearly revealed. This assemblage could, I am convinced, sing anything in the book, including the title page and preface, with grace. (I will share a secret with you: a southern singing is almost impossible to lead badly: they know the music so well, they can carry you!)

But I am convinced that there are less tangible factors in evidence. There were in that room the collective memories of generations, a sort of apostolic succession--a laying-on of voices from one generation to the next which is as real and efficacious as the laying-on of hands. And there were the depth and strata of feeling and meaning for those in the room who remember involuntarily that this song just called was a favorite of a departed father, that the one just sung was the last lesson led by a dear friend. These are people who have lived long enough, and lived long enough with this music as an integral part of their lives (and not incidentally, have the ability to sing with such familiarity and ease), to feel the poignancy of the words in the depth of their bones.

God of my life, look gently down,/Behold the pain I feel

It is two weeks after Emmaus as I write this. That Sound is still in my head. My new resolutions are to get to more Midwestern singings--the Madison singing that I have heard such good things about, and the January anniversary singing in Chicago, and certainly, to get down to Alabama and Georgia again, but especially (with the zeal of the reformed sinner) to nag and encourage other upstart procrastinators:"Go South!"