Scriptures from the ancient Hebrew texts exhorted people to praise God with music. But how could music be taught to an entire congregation when many members did not read?
This dilemma was faced by Christian church musicians in 18th century United States. But there was a creative solution: Replace traditional musical notation with something that did not require literacy to sing. Thus was born the “shape-note,” a distinctive geometric shape named “fa,” “so,” ”la,” ”mi” for four-note notation, with addition syllables for other notations up to nine notes.
Widely used since then, particularly in areas of the southern United States, shape-note singing now has an international network of singers who gather regularly for local “practice singings” and meet up with other groups for annual singings wherever they have a sponsor.
Shape-note singers from groups across Texas, and likely a few other places, will gather this weekend for the Texas State Sacred Harp Singing Convention at the Coker United Methodist Church Scout Lodge, 231 E. North Loop Rd. They’ll sing hymns, fuguing songs, and anthems first with shape syllables, and then with words, on Saturday, Feb. 25 from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 26 from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
More information on the convention, which is free, open to the public, and includes lunch, can be found here.
The shape of the notes is not the only feature that distinguishes the shape-note singing tradition from others. Because of the importance of everyone being able to sing, the song leader will adjust the pitch of each song so that everyone can sing comfortably within range. Everyone in the building faces the others across an open square so that they can tune their own singing to the other human voices.
There are no dynamic markings for fast, slow, loud, or soft. Tradition dictates that any time the music could conflict with the text, the message of the text should determine how the singer expresses it. Shape-note singing is above all a personal faith expression. People who have limited hearing are at ease with those around them singing as loudly as they can as well.
Yet the music is not monotonous. There are four parts. In contrast to other choral traditions, these parts frequently cross each other, creating musical dynamics as singers in one part hit their sweet spot and others are stretched either as high or low as they can reach. Shape-note music generally includes more discord than other traditional music, with the spacing between parts changing and creating an unpredictable rhythm. In descending pitch, the four parts are: treble, alto, tenor, bass. The three upper parts may include men and women singing an octave, or possibly two, apart. Thus the four parts create polyphonic harmony of at least six parts.
During practice singings, each person selects a song in turn. A group leader may “beat” the song, or the person who selected it may request to be mentored to lead the song. At singings with the larger group, each person may request a song. The name of the song and the name of the requestor are written on a piece of paper. During the singing, as each request is drawn, the requestor is called into the open square to beat the music.
Shape-note singers include entire families, many current and retired music teachers, people who like to sing, people who want to express their faith, and those who seek respite from an exhausting work schedule. When age or conditions cause a regular singer to change parts, they may surround themselves with strong singers in the new section to get attuned.
There are singers who have discovered shape-note singing and participate only at local singings, and there are those for whom it is an integral part of life. Mike Hinton, the co-coordinator along with retired music teacher Janie Short of the San Antonio area Sacred Harp singing group, is continuing a family tradition. The “harp” is what the tune books were called many years ago.
“I sing Sacred Harp music because I enjoy it and because it is part of my heritage,” Hinton said. “My mother’s family has been singing Sacred Harp music since the 1860’s. My grandfather started teaching Sacred Harp singing schools when he was 15 years old, and taught singing schools until three weeks before his death at age 75 years.”
Hinton’s grandfather and several of his aunts and uncles devoted their lives to Sacred Harp and attended Sacred Harp singings on weekends in Alabama and Georgia.
“They wrote the music and my grandfather purchased the rights to the Sacred Harp tune book in 1935, and the Sacred Harp, Denson Revision was published in 1936. The book we use today is from that book with additional tunes added over the years,” Hinton said.
“There are over 300 singings (one and two day singings) in the U.S. each year. Sacred Harp has been sung in Texas for over 150 years. There is a singing in August in Henderson that has been in that area for 150-plus years, and a singing near Lockhart that has been there for 120 years.
“I have been singing regularly for the last 30 years,” Hinton continued. “I travel to singing conventions (two days of singing) all over the United States. Five years ago I was fortunate to sing in England and last March I sang in Cork, Ireland. Sacred Harp is something that refreshes my soul and lifts my spirit. I can sing all day and keep humming the great old Sacred Harp’s tunes for days. It is part of my DNA and I hope to keep singing always.”
Local shape-note singers Janie Short and Vicki Cooke are coordinating the annual Texas convention this weekend. It is the ninth Sacred Harp Convention at the Coker, Hinton said.
“When we were asked to have the first one in 2008 as part of the 125th Anniversary Celebration of Coker’s founding, we had no idea that the Sacred Harp would continue to be held at Coker and in San Antonio,” he added.
In San Antonio, “practice singing” can be heard from 2-4 p.m. on the first Saturday of most months in the Gibbs Building at Coker United Methodist Church. Singers from Austin, Lockhart, or Bastrop may visit and they will host singers from San Antonio at their own singings.
Information on the history of Sacred Harp shape-note singing, and links to audio recordings are available from the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association here. Examples of Southern Harmony shape-note music and singing are available through the Christian Classics Ethereal Library here.