“Shape note singings are kind of like a square dance for voices.” That’s how Dan Hunter, a 20-something-year-old farmer who raises organic vegetables and mushrooms on a Lehigh Valley farm not far from Philadelphia, describes the musical tradition also known as Sacred Harp.
Nearly 40 people of all ages gathered Saturday afternoon at the Josephine School Museum to carry on the uniquely American tradition of shape note singing. Shape note singings are gatherings where participants sing four-part traditional hymns and anthems using a musical notation with note heads in four distinct shapes to aid in sight-reading.
This evening’s gathering includes people who have driven several hours from Charlottesville, Fairfax, and Maryland, as well as local singers. “We meet once a month but we never know exactly who is going to be there” said Kelly Macklin of Boyce. “At each meeting about thirty percent of the people are new.”
Macklin and her husband John delRe were first introduced to shape note singing more than twenty years ago by Melissa Dunning. Dunning and her husband Peter are founders of the Bluemont Concert series and have been singing ever since.
delRe points out that shape note “singings” are not performances. “We sing for our own enjoyment.” And although most, but not all, of the music in the shape note song books, “Sacred Harp” and “Southern Harmony” being the two most popular, was written in the 18th and 19th centuries, delRe points out that the shape note experience appeals to all ages.
“Shape note singing is not generational. We have people of all ages who love the singing.” delRe said.
Josh Barnett, a musicology student who traveled from College Park, Maryland for the monthly gathering, says that he first heard shape note singing from a friend who was working on the score for the movie “Cold Mountain”. Barnett said that he had never heard anything like shape note’s musical style before and immediately fell in love with the music.
“I haven’t been singing very long but getting together to sing and hear this type of traditional music is really terrific.” Barnett said.
Barnett, who performs many different musical genres including rock, jazz and folk said that shape note singing faded from prominence in America for awhile but has enjoyed a rebirth over the last several decades.
The music is also called “Sacred Harp” singing because the book used by most singers today is titled “The Sacred Harp.” The term “sacred harp” also refers to the human voice, the musical instrument given by God at birth. Although Sacred Harp is not affiliated with any denomination, it can be a deeply spiritual experience for many singers while others simply enjoy the musical tradition and gathering.
“We leave religion and politics at the door when we get together to sing,” said Kelly Macklin.
Singers sit in a hollow square formation with one voice part on each side. Each voice part section faces inwards so that it can see and hear the other voice parts during each song. Singers take turns selecting songs from the shape note songbooks and then individually lead the group during the selection while standing in the hollow area of the square formation.
Shape note musical notation uses note heads in four distinct shapes, each associated with a solmization syllable, to aid in sight-reading. The group first sings through the song using only the solmization syllables “mi”, “fa”, “so” and “la” while also using the verse to agree on pitch and establish timing. Most of the singers use their arms to mark time once the song commences ensuring that each member of the group is in synch.
The musical voices at Saturday afternoon’s meeting in the small Josephine School Museum building were both powerful and moving. Deep bass voices provided musical foundation while tenors and altos offered rich harmony and beautiful, while sometimes haunting, melodies. The music could be felt vibrating through the air and floor of the room.
The tradition of shape note singing grew from the attempts of eighteenth-century colonist to improve upon the “lining out” of psalms, the main musical worship practice in the Colonies at the time, where a deacon read out a line of biblical text, the congregation responded by singing the line and the process was then repeated for the next line of the text or psalm.
At Saturday afternoon’s gathering the tradition of psalm singing continued much as it would have been practiced two hundred years ago. “Gospel Trumpet L.M.” (tune composed in 1855, words from 1724 in “long meter” verse) based on Mark 16:15 implores the faithful to “Go ye into the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”
“Joyful C. M.” (tune composed in 1844, words from 1729 in “common meter” verse) from 1st Corinthians 16:13 demands “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like a man, be strong.”
All verses are metered as either “common”, “long” or “short” so that the early shape note singers could easily know the rhythm of the verses without necessarily know the tune according to John delRe.
Shape note meeting venues move from place to place to accommodate the wide distribution of area singers. Groups meet in Richmond, the Northern Shenandoah Valley, Baltimore, Greater Washington, DC, Charlottesville and other places.
Shape note singing appeals to all ages if last night’s gathering is any indication of what occurs elsewhere. During the singing Zoey, an elementary school-aged girl with flowing blond hair, asked to lead a song. With shape note book tucked in the crook of her left arm, Zoey lead the adult singers while marking time with her right arm.
Dan Hunter says that he makes the three hour drive from Pennsylvania because shape note music offers something that is difficult to find elsewhere.
“I like popular music too but the lyrics are all about broken relationships and popular culture. After awhile it’s hard to listen to the same message over and over. Shape note music seems more solid and real” Hunter said. “The message is dramatic and timeless and I like that.”