One of the oldest musical styles born in the U.S. looks a lot different on the page than typical music. Shape note singing uses symbols to represent notes: a triangle, a circle, a square and sometimes a diamond.
A small – but growing – number of people around Atlanta gather regularly to sing from the shape note hymnal, the Sacred Harp. So, a scholar released a new version of it this month.
Listen to the Sacred Harp singers in an audio slide show by clicking here.
When people get together to sing shape note music, they sit in what’s called a “hollow square.” A song leader stands in the middle. On each side is a group of people singing a different line of music: men on the bass part, both genders on the tenor melody, women on the alto part, and mixed voices on the top “treble” line.
These singers have formed their hollow square inside Emory University’s chapel. They’re here because of the long, beige hymnals in their hands called Original Sacred Harp. Publishers have updated three different versions of Sacred Harp over the years. This version is called the James Edition. It’s named for music editor Joseph Stephen James.
Emory scholar Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg is behind the book’s publication. Slipping downstairs where it’s quieter, he admits he’s an unlikely leader for the project. He’s neither a Southern native – nor a trained musician. He says, “I am a doctoral candidate in an American Studies program here called the Institute for the Liberal Arts. Instead of talking to you right now, I should be finishing my dissertation,” and laughs.
Karlsberg says he got hooked on shape note singing while in college in Connecticut. He applied to Emory so he could study the music for his thesis. Once there, he worked with the school library and the book’s publisher to reprint the 1911 James Edition. The hymnals aren’t really an update; they’re the first-ever historical reprints of the book. The music in them is from 1911.
“It’s the beginning of the chain of revisions that leads to the book that we now use here in Atlanta, and that’s used at singings really all over the world at this point,” Karlsberg says. “What’s so interesting about it is just the way that it’s an artifact of what Sacred Harp meant to people, how people were understanding it as fitting into their lives in the modernizing New South of the early 20th century.”
And, that cultural significance is alive today. Karlsberg says Sacred Harp sales have been steady to slightly rising for years. Since hymnals last decades, new orders usually mean new singers. In fact, orders come increasingly from northern states – even other countries.
Karlsberg opens a copy of the reprinted book to teach a little more about the music in it. Sacred Harp Publishing Company Chair John Plunkett adds his singing voice to the demonstration.
In most four-part hymns, sopranos have the main tune on top. In shape note singing, the high part is called the “treble” line, and it doesn’t usually contain the melody. That goes to the tenors. Karlsberg and Plunkett pick a different pitch and sing those two parts together.
Back upstairs in the chapel, singers keep the tempo by swinging their arms and tapping their feet. It’s a democratic way to make music – with no spot in the hollow square for a concert audience.
To learn why a historian’s a work matters to modern singers, a good person to ask is a woman who isn’t holding the reprinted Sacred Harp. Mary Brownlee of Thomaston is carefully turning the torn, yellowed pages of her hymnal because it’s actually from 1911.
During a break in the singing, Brownlee points to a handwritten message at the beginning of the book. She received it as a gift when she was a little girl – in 1949.
She says, “I will be 78 in two weeks … and I can still sing treble! I can still hit the high notes!”
Brownlee says her family has been singing out of the Sacred Harp since before the Civil War. She recalls how the small, country church she still attends today – Emmaus Primitive Baptist Church in Thomaston – was a logical venue for shape note singing during her childhood.
“Back in the 20s, 30s, 40s a lot of the Primitive Baptist churches just met once or twice a month. For instance, our preacher preached at Emmaus on fourth Sunday. Then he had two other churches in Macon that he preached. So anyway, our churches – our little Primitive Baptist churches – would be empty sometimes three Sundays,” she explains.
So, on those Sundays, Brownlee’s church hosted shape note singing. Primitive Baptists don’t use instruments in church, and shape note music only has vocal parts – so it was a perfect fit.
With a few invitations, the singings became social gatherings that crossed class and denominational lines. They were a practical choice for weekend fun. On modern roads, it probably took Brownlee an hour and a half to drive to Emory for the weekend shape note gathering. When she was a child, “My daddy had a T Model. We went to church in a T Model!” Others in Brownlee’s area just had wagons.
If Brownlee loves shape note singing for how it represents her family and her faith, why would other people pick up a reprint of the 1911 Original Sacred Harp or any shape note hymnal?
To answer that question, Brownlee introduces her younger friend who’s also at the convention, Debora Grosse. The Michigan native is an engineer – with an artistic side. She sits on the floor during the singing break with paper and little pots at her feet, painting.
She says her church in Atlanta used shape note music a few times, and that prompted her to find area singings online. “I guess I’d always wished I could be in a band or wished I could be in a group, but I didn’t have the talents and the abilities that would have allowed that. But, this was something where I could join in be part of a group that was making music,” she explains.
Now, Grosse enjoys the music enough that she helps with the Atlanta Sacred Harp Singers webpage.
In addition to people like Grosse and Karlsberg who discovered shape note singing as adults, children continue to pick it up from their families.
13-year-old Wyatt Denny of Carrollton rode to the Emory event with his grandfather. He says he plays trumpet at school. But, shape note singing lets him express something more spiritual. It also lets him connect with generations who sang the music before him.
“They spent a lot of their time doing that, and they just loved it, and they wanted it to keep going, too, I bet. So, [this is] honoring them to keep it going and not let it stop because that’s something that they want[ed] to do, and they came before us,” he says. “If it wasn’t for them, we probably wouldn’t even be here.”
That’s enough to convince this teenager to spend his Saturday singing hymns, but did he pick up a reprinted copy of the 1911 Sacred Harp?
“I thought it was pretty cool,” he says. “I already bought mine. I bought it as soon as he handed it to me.”
After that, Denny heads back to the chapel. The break is over, and it’s time for the singers to sit back down in their hollow square … and open their newly reprinted Original Sacred Harp hymnals.