Mountain Tradition: Shape Note Singing

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From the earliest of days when our ancestors crested the peaks of the Blue Ridge and kept going until they reached the most rugged and unforgiving terrain east of the Mississippi, Appalachian-Americans have marched to the beat of their own drum.  Our politics, superstitions, and foods are uniquely our own; however, when it comes to going to church, the ingenious creativity, beautiful simplicity and unmatched passion of mountain people is truly placed on display.  It was in these mountains that snake handling, camp meetings and circuit riding preachers all originated.

The greatest defining characteristic of going to church in the mountains of Appalachia, however, is “sing’n” and for nearly two centuries, this sing’n has been made possible thanks to a fascinating music notation system known as “shape note singing.”

For roughly a thousand years, church people have been singing music to syllables and symbols designating pitch; unfortunately, these systems were often complicated and knowledge of how to read them was a privilege reserved mostly for the rich and well educated — thus the common person was prevented from worshiping in church through music.

In the early years of American history, a new system of singing to music notes was developed for the purpose of bringing worship through music to the common class of people.  Popularized in New England, this method became known as Sacred Harp or “Shape Note Singing”.

In this system, shapes were added to the note heads in written music to help singers find pitches within major and minor scales without the use of more complex information found in key signatures on the staff.

In the decades that followed this development, churches throughout the American Northeast would hold annual week-long singing schools for the purpose of teaching members, especially children, how to sing a cappella in this new method and it was from this effort that many timeless hymns ultimately came into existence.

Eventually, shape notes and the kind of participatory music which they served came under attack from mostly urban-based critics who spearheaded the “better music movement”.  This movement advocated a more “scientific” style of sacred music, more closely based on the harmonic styles of contemporaneous European music. The new style gradually prevailed and shape notes and their music disappeared from the cities of New England prior to the Civil War and from the rural areas of the Northeast and Midwest in the following decades.

While rejected by northern churches, religious people in the South cherished the Yankee invention and in short time song books and hymn books were being published throughout Dixie and the Appalachian hills showcasing shape note singing.

During the 1800s, regional shape note songbooks were published including the Alabama Shape Note Song Book and Kentucky Shape Note Song Book.

By the turn of the century, Sacred Harp singing had all but been forgotten in the American Northeast, but in the South and Appalachia, it had managed to evolve from four shapes to seven, though there was significant controversy in local churches as to which version should be used — the older version, which was desired by the more traditionalists, did not include contemporary or popular hymns such as “Rock of Ages”, while the new version included many of the mainstream hymns of the day.  The conflict ultimately split many churches.

Eventually, the newer version of Shape Note Singing became mainstream and the practice of singing music based upon the shapes presented continued throughout the century ahead.

Although seven-shape books may not be as popular as in the past, there are still a great number of churches in the American South and Appalachia, in particular Southern Baptists, Primitive Baptists, almost all of the non-instrumental Churches of Christ, some Free Methodists, United Pentecostals, and United Baptists in the Appalachian regions of West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, that regularly use seven-shape songbooks in Sunday worship. These songbooks may contain a variety of songs from 18th-century classics to 20th-century gospel music.

The Mennonites and Brethren also still use the seven-shape singing system as do some African-American churches.

Throughout the early 1900s, nondenominational community sing’ns also featured early seven-shape gospel music such as Stamps-Baxter hymnals or Heavenly Highway.

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