Leading in Four Beats to the Measure: Another Style of Leading Within the Sacred Harp Tradition

By Ginnie Ely (May 2000)

Throughout the Sacred Harp singing community there are several geographic areas where, over time, variations have developed in leading and singing styles. Some of this came about because in the early days, before airplanes and cars made transportation so easy, the various groups of singers were more isolated from one another. Differences in local practices in tempo and leading styles can still be seen and heard today. Some areas love really quick tempos. Some prefer slower tempos. Some developed a leading style to accommodate their love of slower tempos by doing what has become known as "beating in four" or leading in "four beats to the measure".

Let me emphasize that the vast majority of traditional Sacred Harp singers lead in two beats to the measure. And many of them consider leading with "four beats to the measure" to be incorrect except in very particular circumstances such as seven-shape gospel music or Christian Harmony. So it is with some reluctance that I write and publish this piece on leading in four beats. However, with the recent interest with singings in Hoboken, Georgia and examples in leading as done by the Woottens, I see a need to describe this technique, especially so that newcomers will have a frame of reference. I would strongly advise that you observe the local customs in any given setting before launching into 4 beats to the measure.

When leading a tune in four beats to the measure there are several regional styles. In this document, it is my intention to give basic instruction so that the newcomer who wishes to learn to lead in this style might have a place to start. I will not attempt to describe here each regional style. I also recommend that the reader read my guide to leading music in the Sacred Harp tradition first, because it contains additional leading information which I will not duplicate here.

As with all leading, I strongly recommend that you watch the traditional singers and see what they do in each of the geographic regions where beating in four is practiced.

Leading a tune in four beats rather than two beats changes the way the tune is accented. We all know and love the strong pulse or lilt that a good rolling fuging tune can have when the class gets going. This pulse is usually produced by the voices singing loudly on the primary and secondary beat of each measure and holding back just a little on the unaccented beats in the measure. These tunes are usually led in the traditional "down- up" manner. But some of these same tunes can have a really strong style if all four beats within a measure are more equally accented. Beating in four will produce this effect.

Not every tune lends itself to this treatment. Tunes that work best in four beats have a time signature of 4/4 which is the predominant time signature in the Sacred Harp. There are several tunes in the 1991 edition to try this on, and lots more in the Cooper Book. In the 1991 edition, some examples are Gospel Trumpet (page 99), Exhortation (171), Detroit (39t), Fairfield (29t) or Webster (31b).

As you watch the traditional singers lead in four, you will notice that the motions are not large. And they are not particularly jerky or stilted. The motion (no matter which hand you lead with) begins by a downward stroke of the lower arm and hand (1), then move the arm across in front of the body (2), then back the way you came (3), and then up (4). Do not think of it as a strict, mechanical "L" shape, but rather as a simple indication of the beat by moving the hand down, across, back, up. Or, if you are leading with your right hand, down, left, right, up. For this paper I will assume you are right handed. But if you are left handed, just exchange left with right. The elbow is relaxed and by your side, the forearm does the work, the hand goes along with the forearm. No chopping motion. No flipping of the wrist. Keep it even.

If you find that you are feeling frantic, then you are probably leading at too fast a tempo. This style is meant for slow, evenly accented singing. If you want the tempo to be fast, then don't lead in four.

As with leading in two beats to the measure, the leader stands facing the Tenors, announces the page number, and receives the pitch from the person doing the keying. Hold your hand up to indicate you are ready to start while the class sounds their starting notes.

For songs with no rest at the beginning of the first measure, just start leading and singing together on the first beat with a down. For tunes where there is a half rest at the beginning of the first measure, there are two philosophies about when to start your arm. The traditional method is to begin leading and singing at once on the third beat with right, up. A more recent method, favored by some teachers, is to beat the first two beats in silence. In some communities you will even hear the leader intone, "down, left," in the silence and then everyone sings on the right, up. One other comment: when the first measure contains a whole note, be sure to count out all four beats. As a regional difference, I have learned that in North Mississippi there is a tradition of leading this whole note in two beats, down, up, and then going on with the rest of the song in 4 beats.

At the end of each pass through a song, stop with your hand up to indicate you are ready for the next verse, or that you are done with the song. As a general rule, if you keep beating, the class will assume you want to sing the repeat. So be clear what you mean. There are a couple of songs where some traditional singers beat continuously through the notes and all three verses without stopping, because they like the way the tune sounds with the continuous singing. Once you get to know which tunes these are, you won't be caught by surprise. Detroit and Fairfield in the 1991 revision are sometimes led this way. These songs are also excellent with the usual pauses between verses.

Experiment at your local singings where you are among friends. And watch carefully next time you are South when a song is led in four beats to the measure.

Ginnie Ely (ginnieely@gmail.com)

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