As I was reading my book last night – namely the novel Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, – I came across a familiar-looking song, sung by the protagonist, Breq, to herself as she ventures off on a daring mission:
Oh, have you gone to the battlefield
Armored and well armed?
And shall dreadful events
Force you to drop your weapons?
It struck me immediately that this was a paraphrase – as though it had been translated into Breq's native tongue and back into English – of Clamanda, from the page 42 of the Sacred Harp:
Oh, have you ventured to the field
Well armed with helmet, sword, and shield?
And shall the world, with dread alarms,
Compel you now to ground your arms?
I was intrigued. Does Ann Leckie know of the Sacred Harp? It would not be surprising. Certainly she seems to be a lover of songs and choral music: her main character sings to herself continually and is fond of collecting songs from societies that she visits. Leckie also has a music degree from Washington University in St Louis, Missouri.
It turned my intuition was right! When I reached the end of the book, I found that it had a postscript that included an interview with Leckie. In it, Leckie reveals that she is a shape-note singing aficionado, and tells the reader that the song quoted above is indeed from the Sacred Harp, as I had suspected. She even gives a plug for shape note singing:
… I wish people felt freer to sing, and freer to enjoy people around them singing.
It's one of the things I love about shape note singing—there's no audition, no question of whether or not your voice is good enough, or whether anyone has talent. You love to sing? Come sing!
In the book, Breq is described as having not a very nice-sounding voice, and that, although others like it, some of those around her are annoyed by her constant humming. She doesn't mind.
Breq's love of songs is moreover an instance of one of Ancillary Justice's general strengths as a work of fiction: it depicts human societies of the far future as having the same degree and variety of cultural richness, in music as well as in other forms, as human societies have always had. I don't think you always see this done so well in science fiction or fantasy.