Friday, August 20, 2010


I love singing. I didn't really know how much I love to sing until I started hanging around morris dancers, who sing around campfires and really anytime they get the chance. Pub songs, sea shanties, labor hymns, grange songs... all kinds of stuff gets thrown into the repertoire of a certain kind of sing. That's what it gets called mostly, a "sing." No books, usually, an mostly no instruments. Harmony at the best of times, generally worked up to as the song progresses through several rounds of the chorus and the singers can fell out where to go. Or worked out over multiple singings over the course of years.

There are other kinds of sings too. Rise Up Singing is a very popular basis for sings: everyone gets a copy, and people go around picking out songs. The great advantage of book-based singing is that the selection of songs is based on preference: everyone gets to choose one, and they don't have to be good at memorizing to lead it. It is a much more democratic process than a non-book sing.

But I like the non-book sings best. It's been great seeing sings start to emerge as a regular, public, sustained thing here in the Minneapolis-St Paul area. Phil Platt of the Eddies started one in the fall of 2009, and I started another one this fall... so far so good. And Betty Tisel has been organizing others. I hope this thing continues to spread

I've tried, in sings I've been responsible for, a "pick, pass or lead" formula, where we go around the circle, and people have the option to lead a song themselves, pick a song, or pass. Everyone gets a turn. I've also learned from watching Phil a way of essentially emceeing things, which is useful balancing a set with experienced and inesperienced singers.

I've been reflecting lately on the shape of the sings I really love. The impromptu gatherings at morris ales (there was one at the 2009 Midwest Ale in a passageway outside the dining room that absolutely knocked my socks off), the after-hours sings at Old Songs Festival or Mystic Sea Music Festival, or some of the gatherings of morris folk at parties here and in Massachusetts.

Here's my theory: a really good sing needs spines, muscles and body mass. Metaphorically.

It needs spines: people who can really hold a song up as they lead it. Strong voice, consistent enough sense of notes so people can tell the key and follow along on the melody, and a good memory.

It needs muscles: people who can push and pull harmonies out of the melody. Interestingly, though I tend to try and do harmonies, I think there's another kind of dynamic that's in play here too, providing the song with dynamics. One of the weakness of many of the book-based sings I've been to, is that you lose the rich texture of call and response, solo verse and group chorus (or often, solo first line of a familiar verse, small group on the remainder of the verse, and whole group on the chorus). Instead, everyone sings everything. It feels flat to me by comparison when this happens.

Finally, you need body mass. It really makes a difference to have 30 people in the room instead of 10. For one thing, it's more forgiving of experiments. For another, the dynamics I talked about above are even more in play.


The thing I've noticed is that running a sing is a lot like clerking at Friends meeting: it's not about ordering people around and getting them in shape to sing on key. That's a choir, not a sing. No, it's about creating a structured space within which people feel free to take up their roles as spine, muscles and body. And then, mostly, getting out of the way. It's a lot like being an emcee in general: you can't just give over all responsibility, because people get bored by the utter chaos that ensues. But on the other hand, your job is take the spot light for just as long as it takes for the next "act" to get it together, and then make the audience forget it was ever looking at you. And in the case of a sing, it's about paying attention to the song first, then the singer. People will let themselves be swept along by a song where they would be suspicious of being swept along by a singer.

I grew up in Pete Seeger. He's someone who's spent his professional life getting people to sing. It's easy to make fun of his "lining out" style, but he took what had become a nation of passive audiences and got them—a lot of them anyway—to find their voices again. That's why he tops my list of "people I admire."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


I'm looking back over my somewhat less than a decade in my Friends meeting, and in particular at a thread of complaint. It's a mixture of burn-out, a feeling of ingratitude, of presumption, and of being asked too much. And all of these complaints have come from people who are or were engaged in the absolutely necessary work of supporting the meeting and the meetinghouse.

It's as if what is needed is more regular vacations. Or a Sabbath.

Early Friends, from what I can find via Google Books searches, were surprisingly quiet on the subject of Sabbath. George Fox in his Journal, talks about berating the people of Derby for peacocking themselves on the Sabbath, and elsewhere he goes into what to me is an incomprehensible discussion of Sabbath among the Jews as a kind of circumcision—which I assume is metaphorical rather than referring to foreskins. And in later theology there is discussion of "spiritual Sabbath," which I think means holding the Sabbath in one's heart rather than on a specific day. This would certainly be my guess for a general Friends take on the idea of Sabbath, consistent with Quaker testimony on "outward forms."

So what can I say?

I can say that one of the great things about meeting for worship is that it is like an opening from the duties and diligence we all need to exercise just to keep afloat in this world. No taxes, no demands from family, just time specifically devoted to the important stuff. To worship.

My own understanding of Sabbath has been warped by Protestant, especially 19th-century, visions of "no fun allowed" Sundays. In particular I'm channeling the Ingalls' sober Sundays in the Little House on the Prairie books. I wasn't raised in a Sabbath-keeping tradition, and I still don't particularly observe weekly 24-hour time periods as sacred. So I'm with the Quaker gestalt on that.

But I do see the need to rest. It's been interesting just how many of the queries our Meeting has been getting in our newsletters and announcement sheets have been about "taking time" and not working so hard. And when some sort of Jubilee was proposed a couple years ago, a laying down of the Meetings' structures so we could pick up again after an examination of what really matters... well, that spoke to me too.

But then we needed to rebuild the meetinghouse, and there's always things to do. Needful things like taking care of seepage and ventilation and paint and the heating bill. Taking care of the kids, which you don't get to just let lie fallow even for a day, at least not when they're little.

If Sabbath isn't a 24-hour God-commanded time-off (I like the Jewish version in which you pray, sure, but also relax, eat, play, have sex...), then what should it be? Is it just a vacation? I think vacations (sabbaticals) can have the desired effect, but maybe Sabbath is any of the exhale-sit-down-and-stop chunks of time we all need. And maybe one of the practices we need to develop, as individuals and as a meeting, is to treat this time, in ourselves and others, as a little more sacred, not just a catch-your-breath-and-then-get-back-to-work, but the counterbalance to work.

Or maybe it's the thing the work is the counterbalance of. In the Adam and Eve story, part of the terms of the expulsion from Eden is that humans will now, in fact, have to work for their food and everything else they want. So Sabbath is like a few moments of earned (or unearned... that's the good thing about scheduling it) Eden.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lies, damned lies, and plagiarism

This paragraph stuck out at me in Stanley Fish's latest piece on plagiarism on the NY Times web site:

And if there should emerge a powerful philosophical argument saying there’s no such thing as originality, its emergence needn’t alter or even bother for a second a practice that can only get started if originality is assumed as a baseline. It may be (to offer another example), as I have argued elsewhere, that there’s no such thing as free speech, but if you want to have a free speech regime because you believe that it is essential to the maintenance of democracy, just forget what Stanley Fish said — after all it’s just a theoretical argument — and get down to it as lawyers and judges in fact do all the time without the benefit or hindrance of any metaphysical rap. Everyday disciplinary practices do not rest on a foundation of philosophy or theory; they rest on a foundation of themselves; no theory or philosophy can either prop them up or topple them. As long as the practice is ongoing and flourishing its conventions will command respect and allegiance and flouting them will have negative consequences.
Sems to me the same argument could be made about "objectivity" or "aesthetics" amongst other ideas discussed in this blog. The point, that a standard need not be somehow supported by the fundamental structure of the universe, but can be constructed largely for the needs and desires of a group of people, parallels the idea of maps as propositions or arguments rather than statements of fact.

The point I would make is that it is important to note that we are talking about the formal rules and criteria of judging communications about a subject, not about the subject itself. In the subject of the article, not attributing a quote (plagiarism) is not the same as faking lab results. In the same way, making a map with a bias is different from making a map with errors. One is untrue to the "objective" rules of map discourse, and may be disparaged within the map community for this. The other is a untrue to the physical subject of the map, and is a lie.