We continue our series Upon First Meeting with a look at a form of American music that predates both jazz and the blues: fasola (fa-sol-la). More than two hundred years after its birth, the stylings of this a capella music are still being enjoyed across the country from Manhattan to Northern Alabama to San Diego. WPLN’s Kevin Bouldin has this story about fasola and its connection to Music City.
Video of fasola singing by Daniel Collins
Two hours of singing, break for lunch, then two more hours
(Photos – Click for larger images)
photos by Daniel Collins
Nashville owes its modern fasola tradition to George Pullen Jackson, a Vanderbilt professor. Back in the ’30s, Jackson’s work as a hymnologist helped introduce metropolitan Southerners to fasola. And his introduction led to inspiration. Local singings began to occur and still do. Marilyn Burchett attends gatherings every fall and spring in the Mid-State area, and as she says, fasola has the power to entrance.
MARILYN BURCHETT: “It’s like ocean waves. That you’re just caught up in this ocean wave, and you’re just being pulled along, rocked along. It’s the most wonderful sound.”
Don’t be troubled if you can’t understand the lyric. It’s purposefully nonsensical. Every fasola song begins in this fashion, with a curious series of gibberish. It’s kind of like:
(SOUND: “The Sound of Music” – “Do, a Deer, a female deer. Ra, a drop of golden sun…”)
The fasola system works the same way: A syllable for each note. And in this system there are only four: Fa Sol La and occasionally, Mi. To learn the tune of each song, the singers sight read from a book printed with shaped-notes. They sing these shapes, these notes, to practice the tune. Then they trumpet the words.
(SOUND: “Restoration” )
The poetry of fasola comes out of the protestant Christian tradition, hymns mostly. And some experience it as soulful worship. Others treat it as a relic of folklife Americana. Tim Reynolds, a third generation singer who lives in Nashville, says whatever the motivation, all are welcome to join in. Like many singers, Reynolds learned fasola from a songbook named The Sacred Harp, which is itself a metaphoric name for the human voice.
REYNOLDS: “I used to say there’s nobody ambivalent about this. They either love it or they hate it. Because it is so different from what they?re used to hearing. Sacred Harp singings are like congregational singing on steroids. They are pumped up and flat out singing.”
To an outsider, this singing style can sound raucous, almost sophisticatedly savage. And as you can hear in this next song, the singers voices seem nearly violent with emotion. The song was recorded in Winfield, Alabama, and under the right circumstances, it might be mistaken for the anthem of a Southern uprising.
At singings in Nashville the level of emoting tends to be less fierce, more civil. Consider the qualities of this next song. It was recorded in Belle Meade during one of the two annual singings held by the local Harpeth Valley Sacred Harp Singers.
Whether the music is sung in the city or the country, whether in a church building or a courthouse, the singers abide by tradition. For instance, they sit in what they call a hollow square formation. The altos sit opposite the tenors, the trebles face the basses. All the while, individual singers mark the beat of the song by waving their arms up and down, like a tomahawk chop at a Braves game.
(SOUND: “Murillo’s Lesson”)
For up to four hours they belt out song after song, and at some point, first time visitors are usually invited to experience the sound in the center of the square. Standing there you can feel the music with your whole body, not just your ears. The vibrations rush over you like crossing winds. Or, as Marilyn Burchett said, like an ocean wave. This is Kevin Bouldin for Nashville Public Radio.
(SOUND: “Murillo’s Lesson”)
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