Shape of sings to come

The flyer that greeted diners sitting down to lunch at the Divinity School this Wednesday warned that the shape-note singing they’d come to hear “is not polite music. The tone is piercing, loud, and somewhat raw. … The general dynamic is double forte.” This was no empty caution. After polishing off a Southern meal of red-pepper cornbread, collard greens, and black-eyed peas, members of the University’s Shape-Note Singing Association entertained the audience with an hour of forceful, full-throated hymns about God’s grace, man’s mortality, and the fearsome power of the Holy Spirit. Seated in a square that reflected their four-part harmony, the dozen or so singers took turns leading the chorus.

Singer Ted Mercer offered an abridged history of the music, which traces its roots to congregational singing in 18th-century New England, and beyond that, to Europe. During the early 19th century, the music migrated to the South (one Chicago singer declared Alabama a shape-note Mecca), and these days singing groups hail from across the country. The name comes from the notation system itinerant singing instructors used to teach music to illiterate American frontier-people. Called “shape note,” it uses different shapes to represent the sounds “fa,” “sol,” “la,” “ti,” and “do.” A seminal book of folk hymns, The Sacred Harp—which spawned the largest surviving branch of shape-note singing—has been in continuous publication since 1844. Late editions make room for new compositions, some by University shape-note singers.

Obviously unaccustomed to applause—shape-note singing is a democratic, not performative art—the lunchtime singers invited audience members to join in, passing out photocopies of some songs and a few extra songbooks. “There’s really no place for rehearsal in the tradition,” Mercer said. “We rehearse by singing the names of the notes.”

Formed 20 years ago, the University Shape-Note Singing Association holds regular sessions throughout the city, and they encouraged curious audience members to consider joining. Ida Noyes Hall will host the 21st Annual Midwest Sacred Harp Singing Convention April 29-30, and the U of C’s chorus will sing from 9:30 a.m. until 3 p.m., “just like they did on the frontier,” Mercer said. The convention will also include a potluck dinner. “Don’t worry about bringing food, folks,” he said. “We’ll have plenty. Just come join us.”


Singers 1_thumb.jpg Singers 2_thumb.jpg Singers 3_thumb.jpg

Photos (left to right): Shape-note singers.

Photos by Lydia Gibson

March 8, 2006