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07 Sep 2014

Kedron (SH 48) is known to most Sacred Harp singers as a lovely, stark and simple minor-key tune. So I was startled to see that the original version, in the United States Sacred Harmony, is strikingly chromatic in a way unlike anything else I’ve encountered in the modern shapenote repertoire.

The tenor line is the same as the familiar one, except for two grace notes and two accidentals — but what accidentals! The first of the two, the lowered mi in bar 5, is totally unique as far as I know: you occasionally hear a lowered mi in a major-key tune, but I’ve never seen one in this tradition in minor. Technically speaking, the effect is to take us temporarily out of standard Aeolian minor and into the Phrygian mode. Aesthetically… well, I think it’s haunting, though also quite unfamiliar-sounding (and hard to sing, at least for me).

The alto line has quite a few changes, but there are two that jump out. I’m very fond of the so in bar 4, which changes the harmony: it is now a G major chord rather than an E minor. The raised fa in bar 6, on the other hand, clashes so dramatically with the melody that it is almost unsingable unless you raise the melody’s fa as well — which some singers would do anyway.

It’s also interesting to see the extra grace notes in the tenor line — and this time it’s not because they’re unusual, but because they’re so ordinary. At least one of the two, the one in bar 9, I’m fairly certain I’ve heard sung before: it is a sort of embellishment that many modern traditional singers add without thinking, and seeing it written in here makes me wonder if it was already part of the tradition then.