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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America

Shape Note Singing

Nineteenth century American song books that used notes in different shapes to aid singers and teach singing came to be known as "shape-note hymnals" and the style of singing from these "shape-note singing." Christian hymnals using this system were among the most enduring uses of this notation. Among the most popular was The Sacred Harp by B. F. White, first published in Georgia in 1844. As a result of this popularity, the style of singing is also sometimes called "sacred harp."

Playlist

Recordings from Library of Congress collections.

  • excerpt from "Speeches about The Sacred Harp"

    Paine Denson speaks at the Sacred Harp Singing Convention held at the courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama in 1942.

  • I love Thy Kingdom, Lord

    A hymn composed by Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) who was a Congregationalist minister. It is sung here as a shape-note hymn by an African American group, the Sacred Harp Singers of Ozark, Alabama. Field Recording by John Wesly Work, III.

  • Wondrous Love

    Performed by the Stanford University Choir, California, 1939. This is among the most well-known hymns in the shape-note singing tradition, first published in 1835 in Southern Harmony, then in The Sacred Harp in 1844. Field recording by Sidney Robertson Cowell.

Congregations divided up the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass singers in groups forming a square with the conductor at the center. This is called the "hollow square." This was another means of assisting the singers, so that they could stay on pitch by singing with the people in their quarter of the square.

The style of singing from shape-note hymnals was related to seventeenth century styles of singing hymns and psalms, but took on its own character in the nineteenth century. For an example, here is the Stanford University Choir singing "Evening Shade," in 1939. As singers begin to sing, they often first sing the notes, "fa, sol, la, mi," to learn or practice the tune, as in this example, "Jubilee," performed by the Sacred Harp Singers in 1938. Shape-note singing originated in New England, but became extremely popular in the South. Singing was a community and social event as well as a religious gathering. Various church choirs often came together formally or informally to sing outside of church services. While the use of this system of learning and singing hymns declined in the early to mid- twentieth century, there were some communities where it remained strong, and it has enjoyed a revival today, especially in the South.

Communities that sang from various shape-note hymnals were "rediscovered" by folklorists in the 1930s, including Alan Lomax and George Pullen Jackson, and were recorded in performances at shape-note or Sacred Harp singing conventions and meetings. The American Folklife Center holds more than twenty-five collections that include traditional performances of shape-note hymns collected as early as 1938 by Fisk University professor John W. Work, III in Ozark, Alabama of African Americans singing shape-note repertoire. Six of these examples of African American sacred harp songs are available in this presentation, such as "Glory Shone Around," performed by The Sacred Harp Singers recorded in 1938.

The Colored Sacred Harp, by J. Jackson of Ozark, Alabama was published in 1933, and was one of many hymnals that use the four shape notation, fa sol la mi. These recordings and reprint editions of early hymnals have led to a revival in popularity of shape-note singing among contemporary urban singers across the United States, while the tradition has continued more or less unbroken in the South.

Detail from Original sacred harp (Denson revision) / Benjamin Franklin White [hymnal]. Haleyville: Sacred Harp Pub. Co., 1936. This page from the 1936 revised version of B. F. White's Sacred Harp shows the shaped notes used to aid singers. More than a system for writing hymns for choirs, shape-note singing became a style of singing, not only for church services, but also for social events that brought singers together.

Resources

  • Bealle, John, 1997. Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong. University of Georgia Press.
  • Steel, David Warren, 2010. The Makers of The Sacred Harp. University of Illinois Press.
  • "The Makers of The Sacred Harp." Lecture by David Warren Steel presented at the Library of Congress, October 2010 (webcast).
  • Walker, William, 1835. The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. A reprint of this shape-note hymnal by The University Press of Kentucky was published in 1993.
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