The Shape of Tradition

You probably know me as the person who writes the somewhat quirky fan-fics about Lizzie Bennett, her sisters, their lives, loves & all the secrets I've discovered about Our Own Dear Jane's beloved characters. Who would have thought that Mary Bennett was an alto, and her one great desire is to travel to Western Pennsylvania America, and that the sons of the American branch of the Collins family, especially the eldest son was quite different, as men- of-the-cloth go than his worth cousin Mr. Collins

What you don't know about me is that I am part of a group of people who make it their life's work to preserve a great singing tradition that traveled from England, where one of its ancestors was called West Gallery Music, which was sung in country parishes & non-conformist chapels there.

From England, it came to New England & the great Singing School tradition & its great composer William Billings, of whom you've probably heard, and eventually traveled South where it has been the mainstay in country churches in small towns mainly in Alabama& Georgia. This style of music is called Shape Note or Sacred Harp. The name Sacred Harp comes from the name of the oblong tune book published in 1844 by Benjamin F. White. The name Shape Note comes from the teaching method developed by the New England Singing School instructors. Instead of using round notes, a system of four shapes was used. This was useful in teaching the musically challenged of the 18th.century.

To you, the triangle, the circle, the square, and the diamond are word you use in geometry, to me those four shapes make powerful music. This music has one more name, fasola, which comes from the names of the notes, the triangle is fa, because it points fa, fa away, the circle is so, because it's round like Old Sol the Sun, the square is la because it's square like the law & diamonds are rare & diamonds are for mi(me).These four shapes are used in the initial solemnization to familiarise oneself with the tune.

In this day and age of round notes, you might think this practice has died out, and yes it almost did, were it not for some intrepid Northern souls who traveled South when they discovered that it was still sung in isolated areas there. You also might ask how I learned of this style of music? I will admit that I am a folkie from way, way back. My childhood music included Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan & the field recordings of Alan J. Lomax. I first heard Sacred Harp music on a locally produced folk music program on our local NPR station. Of course the true way to experience this music is to sing it & that was how I next experienced it. A Singing School was held at Kalamazoo College about nine years ago. I enjoyed it so much, that when I discovered that a local group was going to organise monthly singings, I had to jump at the chance & I have been singing Sacred Harp ever since. The group I sing with, have our monthly singings on the third Sunday of every month, but on any given day, usually on the weekends, there are special singings, either an all day sing, or a two day convention. These are special yearly singings, we will have our All Day Sing here in July.

On Saturday,6,March,2004,I woke up early, as I was being picked up at 6:30,to make the long drive from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Wayne, Michigan. This was my first trip to an all day singing. This singing was in honour of the 89th.birthday of a very special woman, Miss Pauline Creel Childers. Miss Pauline is a member of one of the old Sacred Harp Singing Families from Alabama, the Creels.

Recently, Sacred Harp received some exposure in an unusual way. If you saw the movie Cold Mountain, you heard two examples of Sacred Harp tunes. So, for better or worse, Sacred Harp is now a little better known.

You may ask, what is a Sacred Harp Singing like? Well you may ask. To use the singing I went to as an example, once we arrived at the Singing venue, in this case, the First United Methodist Church of Wayne, Michigan, the five souls who traveled to the singing from Kalamazoo, unloaded the van. There are many, many things to bring to a singing. Extra tune books for people who didn't have books of their own, all sorts of paperwork, and last, but not least all the "yummy goodies" for what is known as dinner on the grounds, more about that later. I was going to make something to bring, but I would have had to hold them on my lap the whole trip.

Once the doors were opened, the singers started to arrive. Since this was my first time singing at this particular singing, I had to fill out a card, check the space that said I was going to lead & make a name tag for myself. Many of the singers who came to this sing were known to me from our sings here in Kalamazoo.

One person I was hoping to see was Miss Pauline's Great Niece. This particular young Lady, Miss Cassie Franklin actually sang on the Cold Mountain soundtrack. If you liked the song Lady Margaret, that was Miss Cassie & if I'm not mistaken, I also think that she was one of the Sacred Harp Singers who were recorded at Liberty Church in Henagar, Alabama.

I was able to see Miss Cassie, and I was able to compliment her on her song. Miss Cassie was normal and unaffected by the experience, no airs, no Britney behaviour in Our Miss Cassie. She may be only one and twenty, but she has a good head on her shoulders.

Then the guest of honour, Miss Pauline arrived and I gave her a hug and wished her a Happy Birthday. Then everyone started to gather in the room where the singing would be. I think it was a small chapel off the fellowship room.

Now the set up for a Sacred Harp Singing is referred to as a "hollow square". Each voice part makes up a side of the square. Basses across from trebles. and tenors across from altos. Tenors can be both men and women. The melody tends to be in the tenor. Women sing the tenor line one octave up. Trebles also can be men and women, only men sing one octave down. Basses are always men and altos are always women. Because of its Singing School beginnings, a singing is referred to as a class. The class is called to order by singing the first tune called, by the number of the tune & whether it is on the top or bottom of the page. Then a short prayer is said & then the singing begins in earnest. Leaders are called, tunes called, the pitch given and then as is customary, the notes are sung and then the words. This is the customary method, unless an anthem is chosen. Two examples of anthems are by William Billings. The Easter Anthem & The Rose of Sharon. You may have even sang or heard these tunes before.

After a certain amount of time singing, there is a ten minute break. At bigger sings there are two breaks before lunch, but I believe for a small one like Saturday's there was just one. Then the a blessing was asked on lunch or dinner on the grounds.

Dinner on the grounds! we're not talking about an ordinary potluck here. The food is plentiful & delicious. Fried chicken ,barbecue, casseroles, salads, bread, cold cuts, and deviled eggs, don't get me started on those deviled eggs. This is just the main dish table. The dessert table is more of the same cakes, cookies, bars, and pies, lots and lots of pies.

The afternoon session goes the same as the morning session. Finally, after patiently waiting, I was called to lead. Before a singing, I spend some time going through my Sacred Harp book trying to decide which song I wanted to lead. You usually should have at least two or three, just in case someone decides to lead your first choice. I'm sort of new to leading, but I think I did pretty well if I do say so myself. All too soon it was time to take The Parting Hand, that is both a tune & a farewell gesture. Everyone hugs & tells each other we hope to see them at our sing in the summer. Then everyone packs up for their long drives home.

That is what a Sacred Harp Singing is all about. If you would like to learn more about Sacred Harp, go to this web-site:


Make A Joyful Noise


2004 Copyright held by the author.


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