Singing across the centuries

Excoriated musical Americana lives on with Portland Sacred Harp’s recent shape note singing convention

By DANIEL HEILA

I was running a bit late for my visit to Portland Sacred Harp’s Pacific Northwest Convention at the Laurelhurst Club. The parking options were few on Ankeny Street down along the bottom of Laurelhurst Park, but I found a tight space about a quarter mile up the street from the club and squeezed in. Lucky me, since the stroll down to the event was alongside giant evergreens, quiet pathways, and distant green swards where folks walked or jogged, caught up in the serenity of the place. I admit, I was timid about attending the event. I am a bit of an introvert, and, although I like to sing, I was not sure I wanted to put myself out there in a crowd of strangers.

I shouldn’t have worried. That crowd on this October day was nowhere to be found. Instead, inside the woody confines of the lodge ballroom (complete with crackling fireplace blaze) I found a familiar family of folkways enthusiasts. Someone’s grandpa greeted me at the doorway with a smile (there was a definite edge of interest at my unfamiliar face) and thrust a loaner copy of The Sacred Harp songbook into my empty hands. I filled out a name tag with the dorky tagline “Talk to me about Sacred Harp!”, slapped it on my lapel and headed into my foray.

The singers were on a break and milling about saying hello to friends and being introduced to new faces. Volunteers were going about their duties, one of which was preparing the long banquet table for the potluck lunch to come at noon. The comforting smells issuing from the kitchen piqued my appetite, and I sheepishly considered being late to my next appointment. A glance around the room revealed a demographic that I have considerable experience with via the New England contradancing scene: mostly 30-60ish men and women, a handful of seniors and people of color, a few brave teens and twenty‑somethings, and a marauding flock of tweens, tots, and rug rats of various sizes. I started to relax.

Portland Sacred Harp performed shape note music in October. Photo by Daniel Heila.
Portland Sacred Harp performed shape note music in October.

Welcome all ye singers

Shape note is a musical notation system that endeavors to bring into the musical fold those people who do not have extensive knowledge of standard notation and its key signatures, scales, and modulations. Various shaped note heads represent different pitches (and therefore intervals) in a major or minor scale. These shapes help a singer–once introduced to the key via the song leader’s solfege–to sing by ear. Any piece of shape note music can be placed in front of a veteran singer and be sung with confidence once a pitch has been given.

Music written in shape note notation tends toward simpler open harmonies and voicings (where each pitch lies in the combined vocal range of a congregation) that usually offend the rules of proper tonal harmony–more on which later. The gusto with which converts sing once they discover their new‑found aptitude charges the music with its characteristic vitality.

After the brief break, the singers got back to their purpose, arranged in the four‑square seating that is customary in shape note sings. For each song, one singer would stand up from the congregation, call out the number of a tune in The Sacred Harp, and lead the assembly through a performance, sometimes using charmingly clunky full‑arm conducting similar to working an old‑time water pump. The song leader gave a brief run‑through of the scale associated with the chosen piece (with dubious intonation in this instance, I thought), and the room burst into full‑throated song. It was awesome. Chills brushed my spine and my ears got hot. Every corner of the vaulted‑ceiling room was resonant with the unself‑conscious, lusty vocalizing.

My snobby assessment of the song leader’s intonation fell away before humble appreciation. This was uncarved‑block artistry at its finest. No one is expected to excel in shape note singing, no one is judged for their lack of skill or shaky intonation, and that openness to diversity of ability is what produces its amazing robustness, its warm sonic thickness, like grandma’s quilt protecting all from the storms of the world.

Whence these shapes?

In the years surrounding the Revolutionary War, colonial America enjoyed an upswell of interest in participatory congregational singing. This is the cultural root of the American shape note tradition. The colonials’ enthusiasm was largely a reaction to the dirgelike singing style prevalent in Christian churches of the time. The new style’s exuberant, all-inclusive approach to a cappella (vocals without accompaniment) congregational singing was known to fill churches and assembly halls with joy and exhilaration, every person encouraged to raise their voice in full‑volume song and praise.

The tradition is characterized by the doubling of parts by both male and female voices to create a powerful, resonant chorus, and was fueled by the music of some of the finest early American composers, sometimes referred to as “colonial tunesmiths.” These tunesmiths were usually self-taught, or amateur musicians who composed or collected hymns for study in the short‑term singing schools that migrated around New England’s rural and urban centers. America’s first composers cut their teeth in this tradition, and chief among them was William Billings.

Billings’ music was born of proto-American spiritual passions and altruism, and he can well be considered the first American choral composer working in a uniquely American musical tradition. He was quite passionate about his art:

It has more than twenty times the power of the old slow tunes; each part straining for mastery and victory, the audience entertained and delighted, their minds surprisingly agitated and extremely fluctuated; sometimes declaring for one part and sometimes another. Now the solemn bass demands their attention, next the manly tenor; now the lofty counter, now the volatile treble. Now here, now there, now here again. Oh, ecstatic! Rush on, ye sons of harmony!

Billings lived a short, hard life, but he filled it with passion for his music and his singing school students. He left behind several volumes of his more than 300 hymns, which included colorful prose that gives a peek at his eccentric character. Further development of the shape note singing technique and the spread of the associated singing schools throughout New England in the early 19th century produced collections of hymns, some of which included Billings’ tunes. One such collection–The Sacred Harp, compiled by Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King in 1844–came to be the most widely used collection of shape note tunes and the cornerstone of the modern shape note singing revival.

The tradition survives

Thank goodness for The Sacred Harp. Without it, we may have lost the music of Billings and his peers, losing this most American music born of the country’s nascent revolutionary tendencies. You see, in the mid-19th century, one Lowell Mason–a banker and amateur musician–took it upon himself to rid the United States of this “crude and lewd music” for failing to live up to the lofty standards of European aesthetics of the time. Mason built a lucrative career on publishing and organ sales, suppressing this style of congregational singing and installing his preference for European choral music, with its prominent melody and supporting voices: the classic soprano‑alto‑tenor‑bass choir of today’s Christian churches.

Lowell felt that shape note singing was uncouth and not “scientific” enough for modern Americans. So effective was his Better Music movement that the singing schools and their associated tunes virtually disappeared from urban American musical society, dwindling in the rural north and surviving for the most part in rural southeast church communities. Gone was the exalted chorus of congregations singing with their hearts in their throats; in its stead were hymns “so dully correct in harmony, so feeble in melody, and so uniform in their watery characterlessness that they constitute a monument to Christian antimusicality” (excerpted from the liner notes of the Recorded Anthology of American Music).

That the tradition survived the intellectual persecution of the “Better Music Boys” and decades of obscurity in backwater religious enclaves is a testament to shape note music’s universal appeal and its gift of musical empowerment. In the early twentieth century, the shape note tradition continued to be upheld and was even developed from within by enthusiasts whose efforts updated and renovated the long-used hymnal editions. New material was composed and entered into the canon.

Gradually, through the attention of composers such as William Schumann, Roger Lee Hall, and John Cage, and other artists like choreographer Twyla Tharp, the music of Billings began to come forth into contemporary consciousness, reaching an apex with its inclusion in the soundtrack to the movie Cold Mountain. Currently, shape note singing is experiencing a long-running revival, especially in urban centers among younger singers interested in folkways and their country’s musical history.

…and continues surviving

Back at the lodge, after forty minutes or so of joining in with the Pacific Northwest Sacred Harp Conference congregation, I could hear my tummy growl. In the back of the hall, folks were busy setting up the grub on several long folding tables, complete with lovely table cloths and attractive serving dishes. The bounty was stunning. Off to one side, a table covered with baked goods and a giant coffee maker was the final straw in the camel’s back.

I decided to stay for lunch, and was glad I did. Not only was the food excellent (breaking my longstanding conceit that Northwest potlucks pale in comparison to those of the Northeast), but the folks were friendly, willing to talk, and eager to include me in their tradition. In fact, I met someone from my hometown who insisted that I show up at their monthly sings–something I am looking forward to very much.

Portland Sacred Harp performed shape note music in October. Photo by Daniel Heila.
Portland Sacred Harp performed shape note music in October.

Find out more about Sacred Harp singing at https://fasola.org/, and about Portland Sacred Harp sings here: http://portlandsacredharp.org/.

Daniel Heila loves words, plays flute, and writes music in Eugene, Oregon.

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