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Local News

January 31, 2014

Artisans guild's classes on singing take shape

Starting Monday, area residents can experience the alchemy of an American tradition at a local singing school. 

A school based on the Sacred Harp tunebook will begin Monday at the Catskill Mountain Artisans Guild space in the Margaretville Commons Building, where participants will learn the rudiments of what is sometimes called “shape note” singing. The school will continue throughout the week, ending with a potluck and community sing-along. 

The Margaretville school is the third of its kind to be offered in the area in the past several months, but the tradition of singing schools goes back to the 19th century, and the Sacred Harp songbook is even older. 

Ben Fenton of Fleischmanns, who organized the local singing schools, first heard Sacred Harp singing in the 2003 film “Cold Mountain.” To Fenton, 43, who grew up singing in choirs and taking voice lessons, it was a revelation.

“I thought, ‘That’s amazing stuff; I’ve never heard anything like that before,’” Fenton recalled in a phone conversation on Wednesday. Through the website, Fenton discovered a singing group in Kingston, in Ulster County, and drove down to check it out. As he tells it, he was hooked right away. 

“A lot of people go, and they sing a few times, and forget about it. But I drank the Kool-Aid,” Fenton laughed. “I was sitting in front of YouTube, trying to learn 100 songs in two weeks. I was just obsessed.”

For Fenton, the pull of Sacred Harp singing was multifaceted. Part of it was the unique sound of the music, which has been described as weird, spare, raw, penetrating, haunting, “full-body, shout-it-out singing” (that last from Melissa Block of “All Things Considered”).

“Singing loudly is an integral part,” explained Ben Bath of Red Hook, an ethnomusicologist who teaches the local singing schools. “It’s not overloud, but it’s full singing; strong singing.” 

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