2.5 days’ singing: The red book and a woven riddle

This past weekend the 18th Annual Rocky Mountain Sacred Harp Convention took place at the Wild Sage Common House (Wild Sage Cohousing) in Boulder, Colorado.


Sacred harp singing, also known as shape note or fasola, is a 200-year-old form of a cappella four-part harmony. If you saw the movie Cold Mountain, you heard two shape-note tunes in the soundtrack: "Idumea" and "I’m Going Home." The PBS special Amazing Grace, one of Bill Moyers’ documentaries, includes a shape-note version of that old song. I’ve just learned that there’s a new documentary on the tradition called Awake My Soul.

I won’t describe the music itself further in this post, because I’ve already done that in an essay I wrote called "On moving into the hollow square." [10/1/07: I thought I’d linked to the essay, but it doesn’t seem to have worked. I think it will now be available from the "Additional writing" part of the sidebar. Knock on wood.] The piece was originally published in a literary magazine called Many Mountains Moving in its Literature of Spirituality Special Edition, edited by Cathy Capozzoli.

Local singings are held in many communities throughout the year. A convention is a big singing that happens annually. There are lots of conventions. People travel long distances (and short) to attend conventions, which end up linking shape note singers from different regions together. Lots of people travel to as many conventions as they can, although I haven’t been to any other than the Rocky Mountain convention, and then only when it’s been in Colorado (alternate years are in New Mexico) and I haven’t had a conflicting work commitment during its scheduled weekend (often SOAR, when I worked at Interweave Press). This year’s convention was either the first or second full convention I’ve participated in, although I first sang shape note thirty years ago (seven shape) and singing regularly for the past twenty years (four shape). It gathered eighty participants from nine states (CO, NM, UT, IL, WA, GA, AL, TX, CA) plus England.

Someone passes a hat (or paper bag) for donations to cover costs. Local singers provide a bountiful potluck mid-day meal for everyone.

On the way to Boulder on Friday, I stopped at Shuttles, Spindles, and Skeins to get two more hanks of Crystal Palace cotton chenille so I can turn a big gauge swatch into a scarf. The actual project for which this swatch is preparation is a sweater for a friend who’s allergic to animal fibers.


Friday evening, there was a singing school with Terry Wootten from Alabama, who, along with his wife, Sheila Wootten, joined us for the weekend. Singing schools introduce new singers to the tradition (although simply jumping in is also a normal way to begin) and give more experienced singers new perspectives on the music’s history and variations.

On Saturday and Sunday, the convention ran from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a break for lunch and socializing each day from noon to 1. On Saturday, we sang 85 different songs. On Sunday, we sang another 80. That was the official part.

Saturday evening, a smaller group gathered to sing a few more. The convention was a "red book" or "Denson book" singing. The evening, unofficial session also sang from the "blue book" (Cooper book) and the "black book" (Norumbega Harmony).

Because my voice gave out, a few songs before everyone else quit for the night I retired to the guest room that I’d been offered the use of, in the lower level of the common house. I ended the day reading Meghan Nuttall Sayres‘ novel Anahita’s Woven Riddle, which I’d discovered and picked up at Shuttles, with the delightful sound of the day’s last music coming through the ceiling above me.

When I edited Spin-Off magazine, Meghan wrote several articles that I published. Her novel, which concerns a nomadic Iranian spinner/dyer/weaver, is an excellent read that incorporates, without being encumbered by, a lot of knowledge of Iranian culture and of the textile arts. The narrative structure itself resembles a tapestry. I enjoyed the book as both reader and writer. Although categorized as a young adult novel, it is, like all good books, not age-limited in its appeal.

I got the small rug in the photo above by way of Rubia, which mostly provides an outlet for sales of embroidery by women from Afghanistan. When Rubia’s Jennie Wood came to the 2004 Denver Convergence, the biennial handweavers’ convention, she brought some lovely rugs with her. . . .



3 thoughts on “2.5 days’ singing: The red book and a woven riddle”

  1. You lucky gal! I’d love to go to a big singing like that, although I belong to a Mennonite church here and we have “mini-sings” once a month. Four-part acapella singing is part of this group’s heritage. The only time I don’t like shaped notes is when I have to play the song on the piano–the old Mennonite hymnal was all in shaped notes and sometimes we still sing out of that book (so few people know how to read music anymore that they want the piano to play along). It’s hard to read four shapes at once, plus I’d rather be singing. 🙂 Are you an alto? Soprano? If you ever get up here to Montana we’ll organize a singing just for you.

  2. You do shape-note singing? Oh my. I did a bit of it at the local folk festival a couple of years ago and was really amazed at the gorgeous open sound. We were arranged in a “square”, and it was a real sonic trip to stand in the centre of the square. You’ve got the CD by Anonymous 4 (“American Angels”), I expect?

  3. I used to do shape note singing. Back in the 80’s, I’d pull up to a singing site on my Kawasaki motorcycle. Folks there didn’t blink an eye — just welcomed me in and helped me get started. I loved that about them. I just don’t get a chance to go too much anymore. It’s a great experience.

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