by Deborah Robson
Silence fills the room first. This ordinary space occupies the second floor of an old building adjacent to a public outdoor swimming pool, which is drained and covered in blue tarps because this is November. Early on a quiet Saturday morning, a swish-slide of footsteps comes up the building’s stairs, directly from the outside to the upper level. The thumb-latch clicks and, as the heavy door swings open, the air pressure inside the large space shifts with a sigh. One pair of leather-soled shoes taps across the wooden floor, the sound bouncing back from the sheetrock ceilings and walls.
With a clunk, a steel folding chair leaves the rolling storage rack at the end of the room, and its feet hit the floor with staccato clangs. The shoes cross the room and back, and a second chair rattles to its open position and thunks into place next to the first. Another person arrives and the almost inaudible squeak of rubber soles syncopates with the original set of footsteps. The speed of the steel chairs’ placement increases, making the almost-rhythmic pattern more complex.
When the arrangement is complete, all the chairs face the open center of a hollow square. The front row on each side contains about six seats. One or two additional rows of chairs line up directly behind each front row. The goal is to have enough seats, without many extra spaces. The square needs to be as tight as possible.
Shape note, also called sacred harp or fasola, is a form of a cappella or purely vocal music, without instrumental accompaniment. One alternate name for the tradition, sacred harp, may refer to each singer’s vocal cords, or to the effect created by the singers’ combined voices.
The tradition developed in New England and then moved to, and grew even stronger in, Southern communities. Solidly rural through most of its history, shape note now forms the nucleus of urban gatherings as well and has moved back north. Large singings occur today in small churches in Alabama and Georgia, as they have for many years. Regular groups of singers also gather in northern cities like Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago, Seattle.
Many of the lyrics reflect a historic Christian theology and the larger gatherings open and close with prayers, but the music and its practice remain fiercely non-denominational. When singers gather, people rarely talk about religion. The participants don’t proselytize each other. Each person believes in something; what the group shares in singing is a fundamental experience of spirit, not individual variation.
The door at the top of the stairs is propped open and more people begin to arrive. Shape-note involves four-part harmony, and the singers of each part sit on one side of the square in a prescribed arrangement. A tenor drops his songbook in the second row of the section of chairs closest to the entrance and then eases between the seats to chat with a friend he hasn’t seen in months. The location of the tenors, whose part carries the primary melody, determines the positions of the other parts. Another tenor, very experienced, sets her book on a chair in the front row of the same section. As a front-row singer, she will assume extra, unspoken responsibility for the progress of the day’s singing.
Altos, mostly women, take chairs in the section that looks toward the door. Trebles, the men and women who will sing the high harmony, gather in the section to the tenors’ right, and the basses, mostly men, sit on the tenors’ left. One after another, people thump thick books on the seats to claim places, and then slide canvas bags containing throat lozenges and piles of loose papers underneath their chairs. Beginners hover at the back, able to perceive that order exists but not able to determine their places in it. While the locations for the parts seem arbitrary, old-time singers politely direct or redirect newcomers while making sure everyone has a songbook. There’s a cardboard box full of extras, for short- or long-term loan.
Much of what constitutes shape-note singing continues through oral tradition and its fine points have to be learned from other singers, not a book. There are no rehearsals, and there is no audience. A good voice is not required. To a non-participating listener, the music comes across as an almost strident sort of cacophony, with several strongly defined melodic lines bursting against each other. On field recordings from the collections of the Smithsonian or the Library of Congress, shape note sounds like barely organized vocal tumult, although even the uninitiated ear can easily perceive its power, like river water channeled by boulders to form rapids. This music is controlled but not tame.
Although the arrangement of parts within the room is predetermined, anybody can sing any part at any time by changing positions. Beginners tend to focus on a single part. Some experienced singers join in where they are needed most.
The tenors carry the recognizable tune, but the other parts are not subservient. They don’t just dress up the melody. They command independent character. Also, the chords in shape note often leave out the blending tones, or they substitute slightly dissonant notes. The results sound a bit strange.
There are two volumes: loud and loudest, with only a handful of quiet exceptions. Almost always, louder is better. Tempos can be rapid or stately, or can alternate from one to the other, leaving new singers scrambling to figure out why the pace suddenly shifted to double-time.
Singers pick up their books and take their seats around the square. The chairs rattle against the floor, then become quiet as the singer’s bodies settle in to hold them securely in place.
There’s a trick to holding this cumbersome book, a burgundy hardcover of nearly six hundred pages called The Sacred Harp. Bound along one of its short sides, it opens to a substantial width. If you try to manage it with one hand on each wing, the book’s own weight tries to pull it closed. Besides, you need your right hand free to mark time and to turn pages.
Rest its left half along your left forearm, and use the widely splayed fingers of your left hand to brace its right half.
Shape note is a living tradition. New songs constantly join the repertoire. Between revisions of The Sacred Harp, singers’ bags bulge with photocopied pages of works-in-progress or treasures from other gatherings, other songbooks. Songs travel between groups as singers charter buses or catch low-fare plane tickets to attend weekends of singing far from their homes. Local singers provide food, shelter for those who need it, and the best singing space they can find. That space rarely exists in a modern sanctuary. Carpeting deadens the sound.
You balance the unwieldy book and someone calls a song by its page number, not its name. Long-time singers know the names that go with the numbers. As soon as “Eighty-four” is called, the tune to “Amsterdam” begins to go through their heads. “One eighty-nine on-the-bottom” translates to “Montgomery.” Many tunes carry the names of places important to the composers, names that have nothing to do with the lyrics or tune.
Pages rustle as singers hurry to find the selection. Everyone wants to sing as many songs as possible in the allotted time. The person who chose this song stands up and moves to the center of the square, where the sounds of the four parts will join most tumultuously and most perfectly.
An experienced person in the front of the tenor section selects a key based on the ranges of the singers present, not the printed notes, and quickly vocalizes selected pitches within that key. At least one singer in each other part quickly grabs that group’s first note from the air and hums it. Others lean in to check their pitches against this reference point. Pitching starts while people are looking for the right page, and singing begins as soon as most people have located the song.
At a convention or other large gathering, the person who pitches usually gets the key right on the first try and the song starts immediately. In smaller groups, where singers are learning to pitch, a few people in each part take the initial pitch as a suggestion, then swiftly read ahead in the music and check how high or low they’ll need to go as the song proceeds. Sometimes the pitch is adjusted up or down in a democratic matter of seconds.
The first singing of a tune goes “by the shapes.” The notes on the songbook’s pages are not the familiar ovals but are squares, circles, triangles, and a sprinkling of diamonds. Originally devised as a teaching aid for sight-singing, these shapes relate to the scale relationships within the song, not to the key in which it is written.
On this first singing—at full volume and full speed—each part sings its own shapes and therefore different syllables. A clattering of fa, sol, la, and mi comes from all sides, sometimes accompanying wildly dissonant harmonies, sometimes sliding into sweet resolution. Newcomers sing la, la, la. On really fast passages, more people sing la, la, la. The most proficient singers hit the correct syllabic sound every time and can sight-read new music without a slip.
By custom, after the first run-through the singers shift without pause from shapes to the words of the verses.
The singing becomes a whole-body experience as singers around the room move their free right arms up and down with the beat, up and down, up and down, pushing the notes out and staying together, singing together, loudly striking both harmony and dissonance with conviction. Long-time singers hold their books open in front of them, eyes closed, arms moving up and down, feeling the music from the soles of their feet to the tops of their heads, surrounded by the living sound reflected back from the other voices and by the room itself, which comes alive, sheltering the square.
At small gatherings, each person chooses a song in turn, and the circuit around the room repeats until the singing time ends. At larger conventions, people’s names are put on index cards. Each person selects one song at a time. Sometimes the person who calls a song is five years old, sometimes eighty-five. The person may have been singing for decades, or since an hour ago. You can pick a song by opening the book at random, if you like; when you ponder your choice for too long, other singers may suggest the numbers of their favorites. The only thing you can’t do is call a song that’s already been sung by this group in this session. No repeats: there are too many great songs, and there’s too little time.
You can learn a lot about the shape-note experience by singing from your part’s side, but there’s nothing like the hollow within the square. The time comes when you’ve got to move to the middle. You can ask another person to stand there with you, or you can look straight at the front-row tenors with “help” in your eyes, but whatever you need, the group will give you that support. And in return it’s best if you can pick a song you care about, because this is a gift you give to yourself and to the group around you.
Will it be 452 on-the-bottom, the second song on that page, “Martin,” the one that heals your soul when you’re so tired of life you think you can’t go on? Some years, you call “Martin” at every singing. Or maybe 154, less cathartic, but still reassuring that There is rest for the weary, there is rest for you. Perhaps 497, “Natick,” whose chorus soars: Sweet Redeemer, from above, born on wings, on wings of love. . . . Or doleful 47 on-the-bottom, “Idumea,” And am I born to die? To lay this body down! And must my trembling spirit fly into a world unknown?
As your gift to the other singers, you bring your passion and need for a particular piece of music. Each time, they give the song back to you in a way you’ve never known before.
So you consider which song you will call as you clutch the book with its hundreds of tested compositions or you grasp the awkward pages of a new song, and your neighbor takes a turn, chooses a song, and the four parts sight-read it loud and fast, and when they nail the harmonies a bit of the universe clicks into place like the tumblers of a lock lining up before the door swings open. Even though the harmonies sometimes come together and sometimes drift around the edges as less-experienced singers learn on the fly, this isn’t practice, it’s the real thing, the living music, the union of voices, not trained but proficient and confident, as those with more experience carry those who sit at the edges of the square until one of the new ones catches a running phrase in the treble or an alto’s fuguing entrance just right and the feeling hits a place deep within, a place the new singer had forgotten was there in the midst of everyday life, and one more person is hooked.
The long-time singers nearby clearly have heard this change in tone, but they don’t react much—they’re too caught in the music themselves—yet John in the bass section almost smiles, and Mary Lou with the altos sings even more strongly, and the arms around the square move vigorously up and down, following the person who called the song and following the front-row singers, the strongest singers, and another voice has just become a string in the sacred harp, here, now.
And the tempest grows bigger and it’s a profound experience even if you don’t share your neighbor’s beliefs, whatever they are, and you’re singing Our bondage it shall end, by and by, or Jesus, lover of my soul, even if you’ve never found a creed you could honestly recite, but there’s a power in this room that does love your soul, and your soul loves it back, so you keep returning to take your place on one side of the square, to pull your book from the canvas bag that says Rocky Mountain Sacred Harp Convention, the bag itself signed in permanent marker by a bunch of the folks you’ve sung with, some from here and some from Georgia and some from places you might never see, and your book’s binding has been mended with red duct-tape which is far brighter than the original burgundy, and you stand up and walk forward, clearly calling “One fifty-nine” —a beginner’s song to select, or an old-timer’s return to home base, and there’s no song like it, and no better way to sing it than this, and the old-timers are glad there’s someone new here to call it—because you need to choose the songs that mean the most to you, the ones you want to have surround you and lift you up, and you step into the middle of the square and wave your arm up and down, hoping you’re doing it right, but the front-row tenors always have it right and the rest of the group has one eye on them and one eye on you, and it’s your song, so they look to you for the signals about where to skip the repeats, and which verses to do, all of which you’re letting them know by holding up your fingers or beating harder with one arm to keep the song rolling into a repeat, and the massive book lies open along your other arm, its spine nestled into the pulse-point at your wrist, even though you don’t need to look at this song any more because it’s in your blood, in your bones, deeper than a sigh, so you sing with your eyes half-closed, watching the tenors through your eyelashes, slightly out of focus, as they slide the melody cleanly in and out between the other parts, then you slowly revolve within the space and keep turning, to glory in the trebles’ strong, high notes, the altos’ subtle trills through the center, the basses’ vital rumble, all tumbling together, and, singing loudly yourself, you receive the sound in a torrent as the four sides of “Wondrous Love” cascade toward you and it’s all happening now, right at the center of your body, the center of your mind, the center of your soul, in the center of the square.
* * * * * * *
essay was first published, in a slightly different version, in Many
Mountains Moving V,
no. 1, Literature of Sprituality Special Edition (2002;
Cathy Capozzoli, guest editor), pp. 123-128. © Deborah Robson.
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Copyright 2008 Deborah Robson