A musical tsunami

A musical tsunami. The heavy metal of the 19th century. That’s how some have tried to convey the volcanic eruption of sound known as shape note singing. It’s already loud as you walk from your car toward the meeting room where over a hundred singers are gathered for an all-day singing. When you open the door to come inside, it blasts and sears you like heat from a forge.

Shape note singing, like jazz, is a uniquely American form. It began in New England churches of the late 18th century, but soon proved too raucous and untamed for that staid ecclesiastical environment, and had to migrate to the free-form churches of the South. When more fashionably modern gospel music began to displace it in the early 20thth century, shape note’s habitat shrank to scattered pockets of entrenched tradition, until it was “rediscovered” in the mid-20th century folk music revival. While there are still southern singers whose shape note heritage goes back many generations, there are many more who have entered this musical fold on their own, not only in the United States and Canada, but in the UK, Germany and Poland as well. Shape note singing has a way of grabbing hold of you and never letting go.

People gather weekly or monthly to sing for a couple of hours in small groups all over the United States, but the annual regional conventions – Saturday and Sunday all-day singings of a hundred or more from many states, singing about 95 songs per day – are the molten core of the tradition. These marathons of massed voices take everything you’ve got. By late Sunday afternoon, your voice is gone but your heart is full.

The musical notation uses (usually four) different shapes for the notes – triangle, rectangle, diamond, and the familiar oval. Representing the solfège syllables (fa-sol-la-mi), they provide a guide to the intervals between the notes, making sight-reading easier for untrained singers. Since the shapes are sung once prior to the actual words, the first time through a tune makes a strange syllabic murmur, like an incantation in a forgotten tongue.

The singing style is raw, nasal, straight-tone (no vibrato), full-throttle all the way. “If you can hear the person next to you, you’re not singing loud enough,” they like to say. Each voice-part sits together on one side of the “hollow square,” facing inward toward the leader (anyone who wishes takes a turn in the center, picking the next song and beating time for all to follow). There are slow songs, fast songs, and fugueing tunes with staggered entrances. And whether you are racing through an exhilarating major key or dragging out a slow, mournful minor key song about death and dying, you feel great when you’re done. There’s always something deeper at work than either text or tune in the performance of this strange and wonderful music.

Singers consist of Christians and non-Christians, theological progressives and traditionalists, seekers and unbelievers. No one, including me, embraces all the lyrics, some of which come out of a 19th century Protestant mindset and language not in fashion today. But theology is never discussed at a singing, and no one suggests changing the lyrics. That would be poor manners toward those who created the tradition. Shape note singing is not about doctrine but about relationships – with those who have gone before us, with the music they have given us, and with each other.

So a shape note gathering is not a community of shared faith. There is no creed or sustained reflection on the meaning of what we sing together. But when singers are asked about their experience, they usually invoke words like power, spirit, joy, catharsis, community, love, even transformation. So while there is no theology, ecclesiology or missiology in shape note singings, they are, is some ways, not so unlike what we hope for from church. As the (not shape note) hymn says:

How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound “Alleluia!”

In my own Episcopal tradition, congregational singing is often tepid, even anemic. There are any number of reasons for this. We are products of our American culture, where communal singing is a lost art. We still have some English church heritage in our blood, so expressiveness and emotion are often repressed in worship. We lead hymns with loud pipe organs that won’t let us hear our own voices. And our hymnal melodies are written in the soprano line, which means that men either don’t even try to sing those high notes or else pitch them an octave lower, making their voices inaudible (in shape note, the melody is in the tenor). My father, an Episcopal priest and an enthusiastic man, could not bear weak singing. He was never afraid to stop a hymn in the middle to exhort people to sing louder. He would have loved shape note singing!

How I wish our church liturgies could always embody the spirit, power and energy of a shape note convention. Every liturgist and church musician needs to go to an all-day singing and then think very hard about the contrasts of what they experience in the hollow square with whatever happens back in their own worship gatherings.

At last weekend’s All-California Shape Note Convention, I was the chaplain at the Saturday session, responsible for the prayers at the beginning and end of the day. This was my opening prayer:

Come, Holy Spirit, breath of life eternal,
and occupy this hollow square,
that in these precious hours together
we may be united in holy sound and tuneful praise,
our souls and bodies resounding
with all that is deep and rich within us.
Draw us together with the bonds of affection;
let no one be a stranger here.
And send us a blessing today,
lift up our voices today,
make us your Sacred Harp today.
We pray this in your holy Name. Amen.

7 thoughts on “A musical tsunami

  1. There is nothing quite like shape not singing. Here in E Tennessee we have several tradition two different systems using 7 shapes and of course the 4 shapes of Sacred harp you wrote about. I feel the closest to God when singing shape note songs

  2. Pingback: “Be known to us in the music we make” | The religious imagineer

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