Friday, June 26, 2015

President Obama, "Amazing Grace" and some thoughts on bending notes, melisma and the roots of American music

This is probably going to be one of the more oddball bits of commentary on President Obama's powerful eulogy today at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney at Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Pinkney and eight members of "Mother Emanuel" were murdered June __ by a self-admitted white supremacist. In the course of his eulogy, Obama dropped his usual professorial manner for a minute or two and sang "Amazing Grace." Not only did he lead the congregation in singing the old Baptist song, but he sang it in the old-fashioned Doctor Watts style of the African American church.

President Obama at Emanuel AME Church, Charleston (C-SPAN)

When I came across the TV coverage of the funeral, I was in the middle of writing a friend about one of my obsessions -- traditional Irish sean nos (old style) singing and the relationship that I believe to exist between Irish and southern Appalachian vocal music. Both have a lot of melisma or ornamentation -- a technical term meaning that the notes are often "bent," so that one word might be stretched out over two or three different notes -- and I was merrily looking up YouTube clips of southern Appalachian singers whose style was highly ornamented.

And then I heard President Obama singing "Amazing Grace" in a highly ornamented style.

So I mentioned it in my email message.

Which is why it starts out with a reference to a post that my friend sent me on the Irish Music Daily website about sean nos, and segues without warning into some of my thoughts about where southern Appalachian music came from and then -- with even less warning -- President Obama's eulogy and the very similar style of ornamentation in old-fashioned African American church singing. I decided to post it to Hogfiddle, not so much because I believe my theorizing has an unusual amount of merit, but because I want to be able to link to the YouTube clips I pulled together for examples of different kind of melisma.

Lightly edited in the interest of coherence, my email message to my friend follows:

Thanks for sharing!

I followed the links from the article you sent me about sean nos and found some really cool YouTube clips by Joe Heaney, Iarla O Lionard and a family group from the North [of Ireland] that I'm not familiar with.

Really good listening!

And it hit a lot of my buttons -- I'm really interested in where our music came from, especially in the southern hill country, and its antecedents in Ireland, Scotland and the North of England. I've got a theory that the way singers bend notes, and work in those swoops and slurs between notes -- melisma is the technical term -- came over to America with the Ulstermen who came to the southern Appalachians in the 1700s.

So I've been happily looking on YouTube for video clips -- they're not all the same, but I think the style of singing is related and I'd be interested to get your take on it. What's the same? What's different?

I promised some YouTube links. Here they are:

Sheila Kay Adams is a traditional singer from western North Carolina, who learned the old ballads from her family (one of them sang for Cecil Sharp in 1915). Her style of singing is as close as we can get today to the old way (which, I believe, is what "sean nos" means in English) ...

And here she is singing a novelty song called "The Farmer's Cursed Wife." I don't want to make too much of this, but the way she closes her eyes reminds me a little of sean nos singers. Cute song, too:

The style of singing survives a little bit in the Primitive Baptist churches down home. Here's a congregation in Kentucky lining out "Amazing Grace" -- where the song leader kind of chants the first line of a verse, and they all join in:

And here, on the isle of Lewis off the coast of Scotland, is the Scots Gaelic psalmody it's descended from:

And then this afternoon when I saw the clips of President Obama singing "Amazing Grace," I was reminded there's something very much like it in the African American tradition. I won't link to to Obama -- I'm sure you've already heard it today -- but here's Mahalia Jackson:

I wouldn't exactly call Mahalia Jackson a sean nos singer, but I think there's a relationship there. I don't know what it is, exactly, but I feel it in my bones.

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