Over the course of the year I'm producing a series of 8 videos called Northwest Stories, for Northwest Folklife. Funding is coming from an NEA grant. The mission, as I see it, is to demonstrate the ways that music and dance serve as the glue that binds communities together, and to observe that process in the wide range of communities that make up the Pacific Northwest.
We've done Scandinavian dance, a hindu Diwali celebration, traditional Hawai'ian hula dance, and African-American gospel. The latest is on shape-note singing, a 19th century style of sacred music with a small but rabid following that assiduously hews to a traditional style of conducting the singing.
The musical style is archaic. The Sacred Harp is the tune book that the singers use that, in its current version, is barely changed from the 1840's era edition. The arrangements are in a 4-note "Fa-So-La-Mi" format of the note shapes, and the composer's intended key is generally ignored. Singers sit in four parts facing a square where the leader stands: bass, alto, tenor, and treble, though the parts barely correspond with chorale convention. A leader and the front bench keep time with their hands; it looks seriously ritualistic, like a row of arms davening in unison. The parts are not tied to a melody as we would sing it today; they wander and cross and harmonize in strange, spooky ways. It is what church music sounded like on the frontier.
Although shape-note is associated with the deep South, it is actually a Yankee form of music that migrated there and hid out in rural churches for a century. The 60's folk music revivalists "discovered" it and spread it to a more secular crowd. The Pacific Northwest is one such outlier.
My template for these videos has been an interview/B-roll format. In this piece, I had fantastic interview footage to work with, and a really compelling sound. I am now a convert to capturing all my audio separately, in this case, on a Zoom H4N. It's the best sounding piece I've done in the series. I like to have multiple voices in play, and multiple examples of the music or dance, if I can. All my video is a process of discovery for me; the interviews inform me what to look for in the events, and the the events give me questions to ask my subjects.
In this case, I first captured the Folklife performance, then sat on that for a couple months while we finished up another story. I first filmed a house sing which, although it didn't yield any footage for the final piece (except for the the shape-note cookies), informed me of what to look for in the interviews. My producer at Folklife, Debbie Fant, conducts the formal interviews, though I tend to interrupt her a lot. She is incredibly gracious about not being demonstrably annoyed when I do that.
After interviewing two of my principal informants, we realized that I had to cover an all day singing. This is a participatory form, not a performance, and its native habitat is the day-long singings and multi-day conventions, complete with "dinner on the grounds." On short notice I drove down to Eugene, OR, and that footage became the floor on which I built the rest of the piece.
The edit came together quickly after that; in two days I had a rough cut. Four weeks later, it's released. I'm profoundly grateful to Folklife for the access to these communities, and the opportunity to make something of my time with them.