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Shape note singers in Chicago, 1977.
Participants in a Shape Note Singing Convention at Stranger Home Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois. May 22, 1977. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas.

New Research Guide: Shape-Note and Sacred Harp Traditions

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This is a guest post from Deena R. Owens, a former intern at the American Folklife Center and Folk Arts Assistant at Arkansas Folk and Traditional Arts. In it, Owens describes the tradition of shape-note singing, her experiences with this musical tradition, and the inspiration for her research guide. 

Shape-note singing is a long-standing living tradition in the United States. It was developed through singing schools as a simplified method of teaching people how to read music and as part of an effort to reform congregational singing in Protestant churches. The simplified system uses shapes on musical note-heads to indicate different notes on the scale. The four-shape method was codified in The Easy Reader in 1801 and popularized by the Sacred Harp, both of which are still used to this day. First published in 1844, the official Sacred Harp songbook by the Sacred Harp Publishing Co. is only updated once per generation, allowing the melodies and arrangements of songs to continue over centuries. The most recent publication was released in 1991 and the newest edition is currently being edited.

An example of the four-note notation system
An example of the four-note notation system: “New Britain” or “Amazing Grace,” from “The Southern Harmony, and Musical Companion: Containing a choice collection of tunes, hymns, psalms, odes, and anthems,” by William Walker.

A research guide I created during my internship at the American Folklife Center (AFC) provides an introduction to the documentation of shape-note singing and the publication of the Sacred Harp through activities such as fieldwork, interpretation and programming, primarily in the collections of the American Folklife Center. The guide is titled Shape-Note Singing: Resources in the American Folklife Center.

Even with the longevity of the tradition and its relative popularity in the South, I first learned of shape-note singing from a friend who organizes monthly Sacred Harp singings at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale, Arkansas. In May 2023, she organized an all-day singing in West Fork, Arkansas that hosted participants from all over the United States, and included a singing school with ethnomusicologist Tim Eriksen. This was my first exposure to the tradition and the culture of its practitioners. All-day singings are often potlucks and remind me of my own family’s annual gatherings at a rural church. Singers are arranged by their vocal part in a hollow square with a leader in the center. The leaders are volunteers from participants and all are encouraged to lead a song or two, though it is not required. The arrangement of voices overwhelmingly resonates in the space, which is most often a church or a town hall. When I began work on this research guide, it was important to find collections that provided digital examples that highlighted this quality of the music. Luckily, the American Folklife Center has many resources available for both onsite and offsite research that exemplify this musical aesthetic.

Shape note singers in Burlington City Hall, Burlington, Vermont
Vermont’s Sacred Harp Community’s singers perform “shape note” hymns from the Sacred Heart tune book in four-part (in which tenors carry the lead) a capella at Burlington’s City Hall in Burlington, Vermont on October 1, 2010. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

 

A generous portion of my research consisted of conversations with not only my AFC colleagues, but scholars and researchers who were in Washington, D.C. for the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. As luck would have it, one of the 2023 festival themes was “The Ozarks” which meant a variety of folk musicians and scholars would be a train ride away. I wanted to hear from them about their experiences with shape-note singing and what information they believed to be useful for an introductory research guide. While the guide is intended to be broad in scope, I learned about important and specific elements of the tradition that I wanted to include. For example, the seven-note system of shape-note singing emerged as a favored form in some communities. However, the four-note system overshadows it in many of the examinations of the tradition included in the guide. Popularized with the 1846 publication of The Christian Minstrel by Jesse B. Aikin, the seven-note system is most often heard at singing conventions and associated with gospel music in the American South. It provides a shape for each note instead of the simplified four-note system.

An example of the seven-note notation system: “New Britain” or “Amazing Grace,” from “The Christian Harmony” by William Walker.

Examples in the American Folklife Center of seven-note singing are found in the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project and South-Central Georgia Folklife Project collections, which are highlighted in the research guide. The South-Central Georgia Folklife Project digital presentation, in particular, not only provides audio examples of shape-note singing in seven-note but has a fascinating collection of photographs and field notes from the Royal Singing Convention in Mystic, GA.

My hope for this guide is that it will serve as a gateway into the collections for researchers of shape-note singing which can be updated and expanded as new discoveries are made. I am grateful for the opportunity to explore the collections during my internship at the American Folklife Center in an attempt to best represent the scope of materials available to researchers.

Learn more about Shape-Note Singing:  

 

Comments

  1. We established a shape note group in the Catskills of New York. All information regarding this form is appreciated. Thank you

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