A Shape Note Tutorial?!

Do you know what “shape note: singing is?  (I’m betting my Church of Christ friends have known all about it for a long time?!) Have you ever heard a group implementing this form of singing?

Weirdly enough, I had heard this technique in the past, but had no clue what it was and hadn’t seen it performed. Until I stumbled upon the movie Cold Mountain.

If you have seen the movie, do you remember the strange but contagious singing at the church service?

I was intrigued immediately. What in the world were these people doing? It sounded vaguely familiar but I had certainly never seen singers keep time like these people did.

So, I did what anyone curious person does now…I googled it.
Woohoo, did I hit the jackpot!

Here’s the scoop: shape note music (also called Sacred Harp singing) had its roots in Colonial America, where more often than not, there were no pianos or organs in the church to accompany the congregational singing. That meant the congregation sang a capella. And that meant you were up the creek without that much heralded paddle if you couldn’t read music. That led to the implementation of a new technique called “shape note” music.

Slowly, shape note singing migrated south and landed firmly in the Appalachian Mountains where you can visit many churches on a Sunday morning and find the congregation shape note singing!

In 1801, William Little and William Smith came up with a method of teaching singers a way to sing using “shape notes”. A different “shape” was assigned to each note re: a triangular note=a C which= “Fa”.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Courtesy of Wikipedia

To be honest, it all makes absolutely NO sense to me.  I read music. This method of sight reading music confuses me. But according to studies, new music can be presented to singers using shape notes and they can sing/sight read using the method. Who am I to argue with 200 years of shape note singing?!!  🙂 But, after checking my shelves of old hymnals, there they were…shape notes everywhere!!!

Here’s the group that recorded the Cold Mountain piece, singing “I’m Going Home” in its entirety.

Was your toe tapping? Mine was. Actually both feet were. I considered doing a jig as I sang! I can really get into this music. These folks were having FUN!!

Every shape note song that I found on You Tube begins with the entire group…they don’t like being called “choir”…sitting around the director in a square with altos, sopranos, tenors and basses in an assigned quarter. And they begin every song getting their pitch then singing through the entire song using the “fa-so-la” method. The rest of the song is sung with the written words and everyone is keeping time with their hand. Also their feet, as in some songs I listened to, you can hear the thumping of the feet. I thought it was a drum first time around!

I’ve got to say, this form of singing really appeals to me. The singers’ enthusiasm and joy shines as they praise God!

I’m thinking I may have to find a Shape Note Singing School somewhere to experience this myself. Of course I may have to travel a couple of miles to find one. Shape note singing is experiencing a revival thanks to Cold Mountain. I’m late to the party as the movie was made in 2003.

It’s been a long road to this particular type of music. Backing up several years,Big Boss and I were watching the movie Geronimo. We’re big Robert Duvall fans.  I had a hard time concentrating on the story as a beautiful song wound its way through the entire movie.  The song was sung by a male choir.  It was played by an orchestra.  It caught my attention.  It sounded like a hymn but I couldn’t place it at all.  I HAD to find it.

So…yeah, you know…I went to Google, then IMDB, then to Amazon to check on the soundtrack and to cut to the chase, I found the song title after a long search.  The name of the song was “Deal Gently with Thy Servants, Lord”.  And after a longer search and wait, The American Vocalist CD arrived in my mailbox from Amazon!  The Boston Camerata recorded a montage of Early American hymns and spirituals, including “Deal Gently”.  And, yes, I searched at You Tube.  It wasn’t to be found there. Anywhere!

It seems to me that it’s a funeral song in lyrics and mood.  But I could be wrong.  Nevertheless, I love this song.  I’m taking volunteers for someone to sing it at my funeral. So far, I haven’t been able to download it from my CD.  But, when I get that accomplished, I’ll post it.  It’s too good not to share!!!!

I have also discovered, during my shape note jag, that “Deal Gently” and several other songs on that album are Shape Note songs.

Which is why the Cold Mountain version of “I’m Going Home” seemed familiar.  The album I had ordered years ago was chock full of shape note songs.  I just was ignorant of it.

And if you can stand it, here’s another song that was on the album.  It’s called “Star of the East”, is also a shape note song and I love it!

And oh, the songs I found on my way to all of this information.  But that would be another post.  Later. 🙂


This entry was posted in music and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to A Shape Note Tutorial?!

  1. Dianne says:

    Grew up with this. Had music class at church and Wednesday night singing..singing was the entire service. Sometimes other congregations would join us. As a result, I don’t remember learning to read music, I’ve just always known how. Get the movie, The General’s Daughter. It has an old negro chant at the beginning that haunts me. I’d watch the movie just to hear the chant. I love the old music.


  2. The Queen says:

    and THAT, my dear, accounts for Miss Mac actively pursuing you CofC kids for choir!!! Us poor Baptists were tagalongs!!! When I figure out how to download my “old music”, I’ll get some of it up! You’ll love it.


  3. Dianne says:

    The chant is Sea Lion Woman first field recorded for the Library of Congress in 1939. Nina Simone did a version but I like The General’s Daughter version because of the percussion rhythm and banjo.


  4. Dianne says:

    My elementary choir teacher taught hand signals to go along with the Fa So La. I think it’s called Kodaly.


  5. gaphodoc says:

    Enjoyed the post, Shape Note has always has interested me, too. Two big sings in the Atlanta metro area per year, long before Cold Mtn., but I have yet to go!


  6. Pingback: Deal Gently With Thy Servants, Lord | Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Country Life

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s