Distant Roots of Shape Note Music

by Keith Willard

There is a view occasionally proffered that the kind of music we sing in the Sacred Harp, some times called shape note music, is a uniquely American musical form. This view (sporadically found on album covers) spins a tale something like the following: Puritan New England clergy, appalled at the poor quality of congregational singing, instigate singing schools to teach people to sight sing. These institutions soon spun out of formal church control and became independent community based havens for sturdy independent minded self-taught itinerant tunesmiths. These New England yeoman such as Billings, Morgan, Read etc. then created a new type of music; earthy, primitive which break many of the rules laid down by the rigid European experts in forging a new harmonic structure (perhaps even in sympathetic rhyme to the forging of a new political framework).

While there is some justice in these views, taken alone they provide an incomplete and somewhat parochial view about the New England origins of this musical tradition and thus the origins of the music we sing today in the Sacred Harp. This music did undergo changes on American soil but it has a much stronger connection with its English predecessors than many have generally appreciated. [see a historical timeline chart]

These connections were first explored by American historians such as R. Daniel, M. Barbour, I. Lowens and others in the course of the first systematic analysis of early American composers. They demonstrated that early 18th century English parish church tunesmiths such as W. Knapp, W. Tans'ur, J. Stephenson (of Milford fame), and A. Williams were available and used as direct models for their American tunesmith counterparts.

However, this relationship can be shown to go far beyond stylistic dependencies. It is now clear that the whole movement of New England tunesmiths and singing schools can be viewed as a geographic extension of English rural psalmody. The most comprehensive exposition of these English antecedents is found in the wonderful book by Nicholas Temperly "The Music of the English Parish Church". This work convincingly demonstrates that what we consider early New England music and traditions are really migrated English forms. Singing schools, itinerant self taught tunesmith singing masters, raucous rowdy rambunctious singing groups were all developed as part of this tradition first on English not American soil.

You don't have to be a musicologist to be convinced of the close musical connections. Listen to what is now referred to as gallery music, named after the part of the rural church where the singers typically were located, that is becoming available in recorded form. Excellent examples are found on the Under the Greenwood Tree CD by the Melstock Band. Some of these pieces sound like they might have been spun directly from the W Billings hand. Tunes in the Sacred Harp from these English roots include Milford(1760) , Aylesbury(1718), Mear (1720), Silver Street(1780), St. Thomas (1770), Wells(1724) and Amsterdam(1742).

Did the Puritans rail against poor congregational singing and start singing schools? They surely did. But they were preceded by English reformers in the early decades of the 18th century that wished to reform English rural parish singing. Both groups of reformers were unhappy with the 'old way of singing' -- highly ornamented irregular lined out style of psalm singing that was prevalent in their midst. The English singing schools flourished under the hands of the same kind of self taught tunesmiths that established the model for the new world. These roving tunesmiths made (at least part time) a living selling their tune books and popularizing their use by being the singing masters for these transient schools.

And like their later New England counterpoints these singers established a rather independent relationship with clerical authorities. As a side-note, in the later18th century formal articles of incorporation for these English singing societies can be found in many parishes, reminiscent of the singing convention articles of incorporation common in the later southern evolution of this tradition.

Did New England tunesmiths break many conventional (ie the contemporaneous early classical European) composition rules? They surely did, however they were following in an existing, if anachronistic, writing tradition. William Billings had available and referred to Tans'ur's rules that were published in England just 15 years before Billings first tune book. These rules were directly descended from standard rules of counterpoint writing formalized by Londoner John Playford's Introduction to the Skill of Musick from the century prior to Billings time. Playford's rules themselves were stylized versions of practices extending back easily yet another hundred years to the late1500's, well into the high renaissance where they were part of main stream art music.

The relationship between the Anglo and American arms of this music tradition extends even to their respective declines. In England by the late 18th century and into the early 19th century there arose yet another reform movement, which among other things, directly attacked the institution of these independent minded singing school trained west gallery choirs and largely replaced them with barrel organs. A little later the likes of Lowell Mason and his Better Music Movement were successful in driving these 'crude and lewd' tunes out of the New England urban mainstream and laying waste to the singing school tradition. In England this music had no where to go except into increasingly isolated pockets, while in America it had the an escape valve--the burgeoning and receptive people of the south and west, where it not only survived but thrived.

During this migration the tradition widened its melodic scope to include a much richer assortment of folk melodies that had long been part of the oral heritage of the border peoples of northern England, Scotland, Wales and northern Ireland. It encountered the camp meeting music of the second great awakening, and somewhere and when reintroduced the dorian mode, virtually displacing the aeolian mode as the minor scale for southern singers. It is during its southern sojourn, that this folkway picked up the forms which we are now familiar, the all day singing convention, the dinner on the grounds, and the hollow square.

This musical tradition, rather than a de novo American invention, is thus part of a deeper richer past that harkens back to a fusion of16th century renaissance polyphonal forms and reformation psalmody. A form molded by high church citified art musicians and rejuvenated by rural English roughnecks; that migrated to New England and thrived, then was scorned by early 19th century urbanity; escaped to the rural American south and southwest, where it flowered again, picked up new melodic sources and grew an ever richer set of written and oral traditions.

Uniquely American? No. But in weaving together different threads by many people in diverse times a heritage has been preserved, nurtured and enlarged. A heritage that is now very American indeed.