A Short Shaped-Note Singing History

By Keith Willard

The singing school, a vigorous social institution developed in the English parish country side, was continued in eighteenth century New England. Invented in part to improve the quality of congregational singing, the singing school soon outstripped its purely church-centered focus and became an integral part of the social life of the community. Held for a week or month at a time, itinerant singing school masters would teach both secular and sacred three- and four-part music to a room filled with energetic colonial young adults of both sexes.

These singing masters frequently became their own tunesmiths, cranking out lively pieces, arranged in harmonies that emphasized polyphonic rather than vertical harmonic lines. Instead of composing in conformance with rigid European conservatory "rules" of the times, tunesmiths such as William Billings, Daniel Read, and Justin Morgan used as models the vigorous Scottish and English parish church psalmody which made free use of counterpoint and dance rhythms coupled with loose harmonic rules.

In New England, the singing school institution flowered briefly in the period prior to the Revolutionary war but then faded. A post war influx of European style trained musicians, systematically campaigned for the removal of this "crude and lewd" music and its schools. Under the influence of Lowell Mason and like ilk, the teaching of singing moved from the informal process of community singing schools to the rigid (and regulated) control of the public schools. The "Better Music Movement" was largely successful in the cities of the North.

However, two seminal events occurred which critically affected the survival and form of the singing school and its music. The first was the development of a four-shape notational system by Little and Smith in 1801. This notational advance complemented the oral four-syllable solfege system already in place in the singing schools, and helped set off a publishing explosion of the genre. The other critical event was the spread, through itinerant singing school masters, of this institution and its music into the south—what was then called the west; Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Missouri.

Books such as Kentucky Harmony, Missouri Harmony, Southern Harmony, and Sacred Harp were published in four-shape notation and used widely by a people isolated from the tyranny of citified "experts". It was in the south where the marriage of the New England singing school music forms to the oral Celtic folk tune heritage was completed, and the folk-hymn was born. It was here that the singing school found a permanent home in the rural areas of the Appalachians and the Piedmont.

In the city and in many country areas the development of gospel music in the second half of the nineteenth century superseded the old fashioned four-shape folk-hymns. But in many regions of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas there grew up a tradition of "singing conventions" where people would bring their harps or harmonies and sing for hours and days at a time, usually after the crops were planted and before their harvest. Potlucks at the singing ("dinner on the grounds") mixed socializing with the singings, and young singers fresh from recent singing schools were given an opportunity to try out their newly honed skills.

These rural southerners have preserved these forms and practices in a continuing oral tradition. While most shaped-note books have died out, there is still a large and vigorous shaped-note (or fasola) singing tradition based on the Sacred Harp. Compiled in 1844, the Sacred Harp has had not only an unbroken publishing tradition but is available in several versions. Each new edition of the book preserves the music that has gone before but also includes new compositions that are similar in form and style to the older pieces. The rediscovery of this music has led to its spread in places far beyond its native south. There are now major singing conventions in New England, Chicago, California, Washington D.C., Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, the Rocky Mountains, Pacific Northwest, and the Twin Cities, in addition to dozens of regular smaller singings that have sprung up in the urban north.