› Blogs › Furman Library News ›Shape Note Singing
The class after lunch, Rutherfordton, December 8, 2007
Originally uploaded by contrapunctus
On Saturday, I drove with another librarian to Rutherfordton, NC, to attend what is known as a “singing.” Shape note singing is a rich tradition in this area, based on the English “singing school” tradition from the 18th century. It was originally used to teach congregations to sing without having to read music, with each note represented by a shape. I was briefly schooled during a break on the difference between the Sacred Harp and Christian Harmony singings. Sacred Harp only uses four symbols, using fa-so-la twice and mi once. Christian Harmony uses seven, do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti. Minor keys use the solfege of the relative major (from my observation, this might be inaccurate), but then the tone sung before is la instead of do.
An example of a singing can be found here, and there are many more on YouTube:
The singing was held at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Rutherfordon, a church built in 1857 and now owned by the local historical society. As you can see in the first picture, the singers are arranged in a square, one part per side. There are various leaders throughout the day who do a very specific conducting pattern and every participant is given the opportunity to lead. I sat in the alto section but there were men and women in every section except the bass. Each hymn is sung through once using the syllables, and then however many times the leader chooses. Some have up to seven verses, and some only have one. Since it was so close to Christmas, many of the hymns chosen were Christmas-themed, such as Antioch (more commonly known as Joy to the World).
Singings are prevalent in this area. A schedule for singings based on Christian Harmony can be found here. There is an annual all day singing at Furman the Saturday before the second Sunday in May. Greenville has a monthly singing based on the Sacred Harp as well (information also found on the same site). Wofford College has an annual singing to celebrate William Walker, held on the Saturday before the third Sunday in March, which usually includes a singing at his grave at the end of the day. Participating is like being a part of music and church history, and it is amazing to be able to experience it in this area.