To my department on Monday, an announcement of a special event
4-6 on Sunday [January 26], in the lobby of Margaret Jacks, to celebrate my 25th anniversary at Stanford: a shapenote singing by the peninsula Sacred Harp singers. I’ll post some description of the tradition and practices of shapenote singing very soon; the briefest of descriptions is that it’s four-part a cappella white gospel music that flowered in the rural deep South in the 19th century and has been handed down as a folk tradition. More details to follow.
A crucial bit is that the singers sing for and with one another, not for an audience — it’s participatory music, not a performance — though on certain occasions (like this one) listeners are welcome (and invited to participate, if they wish).
Special thanks to Elizabeth Traugott, who arranged my peculiar appointment on the Stanford end, and to Ilse Lehiste, who arranged things on the Ohio State end, and to Lise Menn, who, when I asked Facebook friends about how to celebrate my 25th anniversary, suggested:
Get some musician friends together and give an outdoor concert!
Well, it’s not actually outdoors, but just inside the doors of Building 460 (Margaret Jacks Hall) at Stanford.
Readers who will be in the area Sunday afternoon are welcome to join us.
Now some background on shapenote singing.
Here’s a two-page description put together a few years ago for people who are new to the practice (click on each page to embiggen it some):
There are further links on the fasola site.
The music, sung in this fashion, is raw, coarse, and noisy, even grating, nothing a choir director would cherish or encourage. Some people — my friend and sometime collaborator Geoff Pullum is one — just hate the music. Other people think it sounds vaguely “Balkan” and find it attractive if weird.
There are lots of recordings out, many of them of traditional singing. Unless these recordings have been carefully engineered, they aren’t easy for new listeners to find their way around in: the altos, with their loud, rasping tone, are likely to stand out as the dominant line, despite the fact that in most songs the alto part is there to fill in chords and doesn’t make much sense on its own; and the line that stands out on top (the treble line) isn’t the melody either, but instead is high harmony or (sometimes) a counter-melody crossing over the actual melody line, the tenor.
There are other recordings, some of them beautifully performed and thoroughly enjoyable, that treat the music as choral sacred music (the Boston Camerata, His Majestie’s Clerkes) or as folk music in an Appalachian style (Anonymous 4), but they don’t give the flavor of deep-South Sacred Harp singing.
As for the look of the music, here are some samples, starting with two simple songs often used as “warm-ups” at singings: St. Thomas and Ninety-Fifth:
Remember that the melody line is the third one down. And note that whichever line you sing, you’ll have to look elsewhere on some of the verses to find the words you’re supposed to be singing — a fact that makes “singing the shapes” first a genuinely useful practice.
For St. Thomas, the tenors start by singing SO-FA-FA-LA-SO-FA-SO, the trebles (I’m usually a treble) FA-LA-LA-SO-SO-LA-SO, etc. (Notice that there are two different SOs in each case, sometimes representing the fifth note of the scale, sometimes the second. The major scale goes FA-SO-LA FA-SO-LA-MI FA, the minor scale LA-MI-FA SO-LA-FA-SO LA.)
Both these songs have been typset in the key of A, and that’s (approximately) the key I lead them in, but another leader might pitch them anywhere from G through B. Singers with perfect pitch find this choice of “keys of convenience” unsettling.
Then a familiar text and tune, New Britain:
The “Amazing Grace” text is set to one tune in New Britain, but to a quite different, bouncier, one in Jewett (105), which breaks out into a “shouting song” chorus. Many other texts have been set to a variety of tunes, and sometimes a familiar tune has a new text set to it.
Finally, two “new songs”, Natick and Wood Street:
Wood Street has a “fuguing” chorus, with the parts entering at different times and singing against each other for a while. It’s also in a minor key, and has been set by Judy Hauff so as to insist on the raising of the sixth note of the minor scale that is traditional in Southern Sacred Harp singing. And it has a really nice alto part. All in all, a wild and wonderful song, even if it does stretch the trebles on the top. (Notice that the basses get a choice of octaves on some notes, just in case the leader has pitched the song down some as a kindness to the trebles.)