The Complicatist : Choirs Are Cool, Again.

From Sacred Harp music to doo wop, via Africa

by Gordon Campbell

Singing in choirs seems to be back in vogue. In the face of our fragmented ways of living and working, choirs have become an unlikely means of feeling part of a larger whole, and within a supportive, non-judgemental setting to boot. That’s a partly inspiring, partly depressing state of affairs. It is hard to tell for instance, whether it is singing in choirs that fosters a sense of good citizenship, or whether being a good citizen is what induces people to do stuff like signing up for choirs. Hopefully, some sort of feedback loop is involved. At the very least, some scientific evidence does exist on the physiological benefits of being in a choir. I’ve always liked the ingenious 2000 study by Robert Beck of U Cal’s Irvine campus, who used saliva swabs on choir members before and after their rehearsals and performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Beck found that the levels of immunoglobulin A (which provides immunity and lowers stress) increased 150% during rehearsals and 237% during performances.

Of course, the reported sense of elation that goes with choir performances could just be a by-product of singing, full stop. Singing alone might be just as uplifting to the mind and body as singing in a group. For the elderly though, singing together in a professionally-trained chorus does seem to be truly beneficial – judging by a three year study of an extensive arts programme for the elderly carried out in the mid 2000s by researchers at George Washington University, in Washington DC. That programme included the formation of a professionally-tutored Senior Singers Chorale.

The elderly who got involved in the Chorale (as well as those participating in two other arts groups involving writing and painting) showed significant health improvements compared to those in the control groups.

Specifically, the arts groups reported an average of 30 fewer doctor visits over the 36 month course of the study, fewer eyesight problems, less incidence of depression, less need for medication and fewer falls and other injuries. The elderly choir members also reportedly found that their everyday voice quality was better, that the tone of their speaking voice did not seem to age as much, and that they felt easier with their breathing, and had better posture. Given our ageing population, these results suggest there could be an argument for such choirs receiving Health funding, as well as assistance from the arts and culture budget.

This month, the Complicatist offers a few diverse examples of people singing in harmony, from choirs to small groups.

1.Choir! Choir ! Choir ! : “Thirteen.” A good choir is one thing. Having someone on board able to select a good and varied repertoire is something else again. Too often, choirs go slumming when they perform pop songs, and do them either by rote or for the novelty value. (God save us from “quirky’ choral arrangements.) This Toronto choir not only had the genius to pick Alex Chilton’s ” Thirteen” to perform, but worked out an arrangement that’s sensitive to the song’s strengths. Result : a version likely to please the choir’s normal audience, and hard-bitten fans of Big Star and Chilton to boot.

2. Mwamba Children’s Choir : “Siyahamba” Children’s voices have purity – and face it – children’s choirs have a cuteness factor. This track may sound like a traditional Zulu marching song, and the lyrics do translate roughly as “We are marching in the light of God” – but it was actually written around 1950 by an Afrikaner clergyman called Andries van Tonder, and only subsequently translated into Zulu. In the late 1970s, the musical director of a touring Lutheran choral group from Sweden picked up on it, and played a key role in popularising it – both in South Africa and across the US, thanks to the song’s inclusion in a hymnbook widely used in US Catholic parishes.

3. Sheriff and the Ravels : Shombalor Doo wop is one of the great small group vocal traditions, one that peaked in the mid to late 1950s. Besides its slow and crushingly beautiful moments, doo wop also had some pretty weird collisions with rock’n’roll. “Shombalor” by Sheriff and the Ravels ( and its predecessor “Rubber Biscuit” by the Chips) were perhaps the strangest of those hybrids. Here, for instance , are the lyrics to “Shombalor, dutifully transcribed by Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders, who has become the song’s leading scholar :

Go left, right, left, right
Go left, right, left, right
Go left, right, left, right
Go left, right, left, right

(Oh lady) Shombolar, (Oh lady) Shombolar
Chickenin’ out and then a-root for it, chicken’n-a, Shombolar

Baby, d’y’wanna move out, do it now?
Ya getting’ on the countdown, please?
Baby, wha’ the fuck do you need, now? *
Ya getting’ on the catfish knees? ‘n-a
I love swing-ding
Rickey-bing, you’re a healthy one, hubba!
And it’s known to some that-a jigga-wah
I love pick-’em-up and lay-em-down

* (I know this was 1958, but it sure sounds like “fuck”)

(Oh lady) Shombolar, (Oh lady) Shombolar, (Oh lady)
Chickenin’ out and then a-root for it, chicken ‘n-a, Shombolar

And it’s gonna wine-o dine-o
Frees Jackie Frankenstein-oh
Maybe Jackie come to dine, ‘n-a
Forgettin’ on he stole my wine, ‘n-a
Asks George, “You bing, you bong, you bong?”
Jimmy Jones, he skipped to one, a-hubba
And it’s know to some that-a jigga-wah
I love pick-en-up and lay-’em-down

(Oh lady) Shombolar, (Oh lady) Shombolar (Oh lady)
Chickenin’ out and then a-root for it, chicken ‘n-a, Shombolar

Of all the animals in the world,
I’d rather be a bear (Raar!)
Climb the highest mountain,
Double to the rear.

(Oh lady) Shombolar, (Oh lady) Shombolar
Chickenin’ out and then a-root for it chicken in-a, Shombolar

I love fat man mambo,
Baby, do the king of the jungle,
You can only get it from the Congo
And you try to get it deftly
I love left foot stomp and-a right foot drag, ‘n-a
Hey, it’s good to march!
And it’s know to some that-a jigga-wah
I like pick-em’ up and lay-’em-down

(Oh lady) Shombolar, (Oh lady) Shombolar, (Oh lady)
Chickenin’ out and then a-root for it, chicken in-a, Shombolar

Of all the animals in the world,
I’d rather be a bear (Raar!)
Climb the highest mountain,
Double to the rear.

(Oh lady) Shombolar, (Oh Lady) Shombolar, (Oh lady)
Chickenin’ out and then a-root for it chicken in-a, Shombolar

Go left, right, left, right [to fade, in a call-response duet with the lead singer]

Besides the 1958 original, I’ve included a version recorded a few years ago on the sidewalk outside his Soho NYC apartment by Stampfel and his pal, Hubby Jenkins – which in itself is a pretty hilarious example of nerdy white guy enthusiasm meeting up with stolid Afro-American sangfroid. For completeness, I’ve also included a clip of “Rubber Biscuit” by the Chips in a scene with a drunken Harvey Keitel, taken from Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough movie Mean Streets.

4. Sacred Harp Singing
When most people think of gospel music, black gospel is usually what first comes to mind. Less attention gets paid to Sacred Harp, an ancient form of largely white gospel music of compelling strangeness and beauty. Also known as shape note singing, Sacred Harp was a tradition kept alive in rural churches and based on an 1846 hymn book of the same name, which served a dual purpose of helping people to do elementary sight-reading via a simplified system of “shaped notes.” Even today, the great tunes from that initial 1846 songbook – like “Sherburne” ” Idumea” ” Rocky Road” ‘ ” Northfield” ” Mt Zion” etc still form the core of the repertoire.

In Sacred Harp, each song begins with a verse that uses the ” fa so, la” notes to get everyone on the right track, before unfolding into the actual lyrics. The singers are arranged in a square and can generate enormous volume, and both factors have created problems for anyone trying to record Sacred Harp singing accurately – where do you put the mikes? There’s a useful history and explanation of the revival of Sacred Harp singing among urban hipsters here.

Below are some examples of Sacred Harp singing ; “I’m Going Home” performed by the modern singers at Liberty Church and “Idumea’ a beautiful example from the 1846 song book, which has been combined with images of Native Americans. Aptly so, give the lyrics :

And am I born to die? To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly into a world unknown?
A land of deepest shade, Unpierced by human thought
The dreary regions of the dead,
Where all things are forgot.
Soon as from earth I go – what will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe, Must then my portion be!
Waked by the trumpet sound, I from my grave shall rise;
And see the Judge with glory crowned, And see the flaming skies!

5. Delta Rhythm Boys ” I Dreamed I Dwelt in Harlem”
From the mid 1930s onwards this vocal group were stars on radio, recordings, film and in night clubs in the US. When rock’n’roll made this kind of vocal styling sound obsolete, the group moved to Paris, and remained popular in Europe until the 1980s. Many of their performances seem strangely post-modern and knowing. On their 1943 hit ” I Dreamed I Dwelt In Harlem” and elsewhere, the DRBs seem to be cocking a sophisticated snoot at the traditions they excel at.

6. Ethiopian Orthodox Church Music : “Wereb”
Can’t say I know anything about the Coptic church music of Ethiopia – but the few examples I’ve heard down the years have been psychedelically strange and hypnotic, and yet oddly familiar and beautiful. Two examples here. One, a more conventional piece – well, relatively speaking – and the other a Christmas song of celebration called ” Wereb. ” They’re both pretty amazing.

7. Mormon Tabernacle Choir :”The Battle Hymn of The Republic
The big mamajama of choirs would still have to be the 360-strong Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In 1959, Salt Lake City’s finest reached number 13 on the US pop charts with a version of ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra. This isn’t the same version, but it shares the same Wall of Sound effect. (Trivia note : reportedly, church members refer to the choir affectionately as MoTab.)

8. Solomon Linda & The Evening Birds : “Mbube” / Ladysmith Black Mambazo : “Mbube/Wimoweh”
Forget about those music industry moguls whining about how Kim Dotcom ripped them off., because this is the real story of corporate piracy. In 2000, a brilliant article by the South African writer Rian Malan traced the story of a song called “Mbube” aka “Wimoweh” aka “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Various musicians and record industry bureaucrats have made millions out of this melody – but it was written by a Zulu cleaner called Solomon Linda, who died so poor that his widow could not afford a stone for his grave. Malan’s article is here.

No one – not Pete Seeger, nor Disney nor any of the other faceless music industry types – emerges from the story with credit. The moving and informative 2002 documentary A Lion’s Trail contains additional interviews about the story of “Wimoweh/The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and is also worth tracking down. As Malan says.

This is the most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa, a tune that has penetrated so deep into the human consciousness over so many generations that one can truly say, here is a song the whole world knows. Its epic transcultural saga is also, in a way, the story of popular music, which limped pale-skinned and anaemic into the twentieth century but danced out the other side vastly invigorated by transfusions of ragtime and rap, jazz, blues and soul, all of whose blood lines run back to Africa via slave ships and plantations and ghettos. It was in the nature of this transaction that black men gave more than they got, and often ended up with nothing.

Mbube translates from Zulu, as ” lion.” A local hit at the time, Linda’s song gave rise to an entire style of forthright a cappella singing also called “mbube.” Other Zulu musicians such as Joseph Shabalala and his group Ladysmith Black Mambazo built on mbube to develop a call-and-response style called “isicathamiya” – which means, in effect, “sneak attack.” That wonderful name reflected how the style of the music had evolved : mbube is sung boldly, with plenty of volume. But isicathamiya on the other hand, is more concerned with the harmonious flow between the lead singer gently lining out the melody, until the rest of the group creep up on it , and decorate the spaces between.

9. Louvin Brothers : “If I Could Only Win Your Love” “Alabama”
The Louvin Brothers were the classic close harmony group. As has been noted many times before, Ira Louvin may have been a mean rattlesnake in real life, but his voice and mandolin were the urgent, driving force in this music, while brother Charlie was the sensible, amiable foil that kept the volatile duo together as long as possible – from the mid 1940s until 1963. It got pretty rough at times. Ira was shot four times in the chest by his third wife Faye and survived, yet not long afterwards he and his fourth wife Anne Young were killed by a drunken driver, while he was coming back from a solo gig. He was 41. The Louvin Brothers’ religious songs are their best known, but here are two secular items : “Alabama” was actually the first track from their greatest album Tragic Songs Of Life.

10. Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Quartet “Stewball” / Winchester Cathedla Choir ” Lullay Myn Lyking”
A fantastic piece of harmony singing by the Golden Gate Quartet chiming in behind Huddie Ledbetter on the racetrack classic ” Stewball.” Leadbelly lines out the lyrics like a chain gang work song, while the GGQ provide their typically sophisticated take on that tradition.

And finally an even older (15th century!) tradition from the choir at Winchester Cathedral who do the medieval Christmas carol “Lullay Mine Lyking” which is one of those songs where it is hard to tell whether Christ is being invoked as a deity, or as a child, or as a lover, and it doesn’t seem to matter, whatever.

Lullay, mine Liking, my dear Son, mine Sweeting,
Lullay, my dear heart, mine own dear darling.