Extended Liner Notes:
|“Throne of Grace”
by Prairie Harmony of Southeast Iowa.
A live, unedited performance of American shape note singing recorded at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Keosauqua, Iowa, January 2011
Throne of Grace, a meditation on the life everlasting
The purpose of this recording is to present a real time, real life sound of people of diverse backgrounds coming together to sing songs whose topic is the honest, fearless expression of the certainty of our bodily mortality and faith in the immortality of our spirit. This unflinching view of “the life everlasting” gives these songs a power to inspire, uplift and transform when contemplating the universal experience of dying and death of the body and the implications for the immortality of the spirit in the Christian faith.
Traditionally, singers have found that in singing these meditations on life and death there is opportunity to transform this fearful subject into that of a ‘harmonized realization’ of hope and courage. When as the inevitable time of transition comes this can thus be met with faith, anticipation, strength and even joy. This understanding is, indeed, “the Throne of Grace we yet shall know”. So, this recording is our offering to all those facing this momentous time in life…either personally or with a loved one.
The recording begins with “Closing Year”, a call to awaken to the inevitable experience of death and that by faith in an abiding love of the Divine, there is nothing to fear in this. The majestic “Taunton” then speaks to the subtler spiritual pressure of ‘soul- longing’ for the grace of union with the Divine in life. Heaven is acknowledged as a place of the Divine’s perfect care, a place in rest and safety from human travails as described in “Sweet Prospect”. A deeper meditation on the situation of the immortal spirit housed in a mortal coil, a call to surrender to the will of the Divine, is the flavor of the songs “Sweet Submission” and “Liverpool”. These also invite all to accept the gift of salvation through the intercession of a Savior to uplift us into a direct awareness of our immortal souls, as children of the Divine.
However, beyond theoretical understanding or inspired desires, it is often in affliction and suffering that the heart and mind are driven into profound tests of strength and faith! Appropriately, the songs move from major to minor. We turn to plaintive songs of hope that our journey with friends and loved ones will not end here, but enjoy a reunion and renewal in Heaven in the “Parting Friends”. “Distress” is a tender, even melancholy song of surrender to the experience of suffering transmuted into a healing of the spirit and acceptance of the coming of death.
In that state of acceptance, the folk ballad “The Dying Californian” affirms that not only our earthly friends, but our Heavenly Friend will support us through the transition out of the bodily life into the life immortal. “Sing to Me of Heaven” is a prayer for support during the dying process that any singer can understand…that the spiritual joy of singing together is the powerful preparation for the ‘jump’ from the harmony of earthly fellowship into the harmonious realms of Heaven! “Child of Grace” moves us into celebration of this process that we are only ‘sojourners here below’ and that the prospect of Heavenly union with the Divine is to be anticipated with joy and readiness.
And who will be there? The song “Hebrew Children” is an anthem to salvation to all and does not ‘leave anyone behind’ regardless of the context or events of their life or death. In the spare rendering of ‘Walkley”, even a Savior walks this road of incarnated life with us and shows us that we need not flinch at death, but look with love and certitude on Divine grace within and beyond it. In the profound comfort of the knowledge that a Savior walks with us, will meet us and carry us into unbounded bliss, we arrive at the triumphant “Ten Thousand Charms”.
Our last offering is the historically significant song “Dunlap’s Creek”. This song is “lined” where the song leader calls the lyrics line by line to the congregation who join together to sing a harmonized response. The message here sums up the teaching of faith; that the Divine is ever present and available to us if we just look, that a Savior is there to support, guide, and accompany us on this great mysterious journey of life in a body and beyond it where even the ‘throne of Grace’ is transcended and union with the Divine is complete.
The Prairie Harmony Singers on the ‘Throne of Grace’ CD:
From around Southeast Iowa these voices have come together to sing from the shape note tradition:
Rev. Rebecca Bentzinger
Heidi Jo Salmonson*
Rev. Robert Koepcke
Elder Stephen Conte
*Sextet on “Walkley”
The Songs: Title /Lyricist /Composer/Source
Closing Year* by OBH 541/ Neely Bruce, Northern Harmony, 4th Ed
Taunton by Tate and Brady, 1696 /William Billings, 1789, Northern Harmony, 4th Ed
Sweet Prospect by Samuel Stennett, 1787/ William Walker, 1833 The Sacred Harp #65
Sweet Submission/The Dying Californian Robert T Daniel / Drinkard and Ball, 1859
The Sacred Harp # 410
Liverpool by Hall, 1804/ MCH Davis 1835 The Sacred Harp #37
Parting Friends Anon/ John McCurry, 1842, The Sacred Harp #267
Distress by Anne Steele, 1760/ Southern Harmony, 1835, The Sacred Harp #32
The Dying Californian by Kate Harris, 1850/ Drinkard and Ball, 1859, The Sacred Harp #410
Sing to Me of Heaven by Mary Dana, 1840/ arr. John Massengale, 1850
The Sacred Harp #312
Child of Grace by Charles Wesley, 1759/ arr EJ King, 1844, The Sacred Harp #77
Hebrew Children Anon/ BF White, 1844, The Sacred Harp #133
Walkley Anon/ Neely Bruce* Northern Harmony, 4th Ed
Ten Thousand Charms ….Robert Robinson, 1758/ Hal Kunkel, 1996*
Northern Harmony, 4th Ed
Dunlap’s Creek Ingram Cobbin /Samuel McFarland, 1814,
Alabama Christian Harmony
*used by permission
A Thriving and Living Tradition
Another purpose of this selection was to give the listener a glimpse into the actual sound of shape note singing by surrounding the microphones in the traditional sectional configuration that is characteristic of this singing form: tenors (melody) facing altos, trebles (soprano) facing basses. Recording in this unconventional manner allows the listener to hear what the singers hear when we sing to and for each other. There is minimal editing in this recording again in the name of authenticity and so that none of the real energy, passion and simplicity is lost in this real time, live recording. We utilized a particular space, the sanctuary of the historically preserved 1887 Congregational Church in Keosauqua, Iowa; a space sympathetic to enhancing the clarity of an un-amplified speaking voice in order that the powerful lyrics of these songs can be clearly heard by the listener.
This collection of shape note songs spans the tradition from its beginning in 18th century colonial New England, through its expansion and expression in the west and south in the 19th century, then to modern compositions utilizing both original and traditional tunes and lyrics in the 20th century. We have included a variety of styles, tempos and arrangements to demonstrate the range and versatility of this tradition to interpretation by the group singing it. Most of these songs come from Denison’s The Sacred Harp and the Northern Harmony, 4th edition shape note books, and a few are taken from the Primitive Hymns, Spiritual Songs, and Sacred Poems by Benjamin Lloyd and the Alabama Christian Harmony.
The majority of these songs are presented in the typical singing style with the four basic harmony parts, treble, alto, tenor and bass. However, in “Taunton” and in the modern rendering of “Walkley”, we use the “doubling” option, where a soprano joins the tenors to sing the melody and a tenor joins the trebles to harmonize, creating open octaves that make a rich, 6 part harmony structure.
Of Historical Note:
On the selections of “Sweet Submission” and “Dunlap’s Creek”, we had Elder Stephen Conte ‘line out’ the opening verse where the singing leader calls out each line of the hymn which the congregation repeats in harmonized song. This is presented as it is done traditionally in the Primitive Baptist tradition. The song “Dunlap’s Creek” is historically described as having been sung at the first church service held in territorial Iowa. In that open air service “Dunlap’s Creek” was ‘lined out’ by a minister along the banks of the Des Moines River under a large tree near the tiny town of Pittsburg, Iowa on the occasion of this outdoor pioneer-era church service organized in 1837. The lyrics of our rendition come from the Primitive Baptist Lloyd hymnal….a wonderful source of inspired lyrics for our group!
“The groves were God's first temples.”
Raising the tune, ‘Dunlap’s Creek’
in the Frontier Church. The 1837 Iowa story:
Also, you might have noticed that “The Dying Californian’ and “Sweet Submission” are the same tune, a lovely ballad from the 19th century, but with different lyrics. This is a common practice in shape note singing that lyrics that have the same poetic meter can be sung to any song that will support that meter. The song books note these meters so that different words can be used for different desired effects.
Singing for fun:
Prairie Harmony of Southeast Iowa gathers to sing regularly from the shape note tradition. Our gatherings to sing are certainly open to interested singers. We sing most every week. Contact us for our local singing schedule through hamfam ‘at’ lisco.com.
Or call at 641.472.8422
We Give Thanks:
Shape note singing is open to all people regardless of faith, religion, or creed. We sing for the joy of creating the harmonic effects that unaccompanied singing allows for in the harmonic structures so characteristic of the old shape note tradition. For this particular project we give thanks to:
Rev. Harold Schnedler and the congregation of the United Church of Christ at the Congregational Church in Keosauqua, Iowa for letting us record in their church in early January, 2011
Rev. Douglas Harding and the United Methodist Church of Keosauqua for extending to Prairie Harmony the use of their lovely church and sanctuary to sing in.
The Bentonsport Improvement Association for their continuing support of Prairie Harmony and the folk arts.
John Stimson for the CD cover art
Rev. Thomas Miller for web-engineering the Fairfolk.org page
The staff at CDtechical of Iowa City for production of ‘Throne of Grace’
Rev. Rebecca Bentzinger for her generous support of this project
Special thanks to: Brian MacQueen , our recording engineer
Proceeds from the sale of this recording go to support hospice programs in Southeast Iowa.
“Throne of Grace” is dedicated to the late Rev. Richard Bentzinger