Want to learn how to sing and sight-read music? An antiquated technique, popular in the early and mid-19th century, has been resurrected in the mid-Hudson Valley through a series of weeklong singing schools, which in turn has spurred several community singing groups. Interest has been catching on like wildfire, and “shape-note singing” – named after the four geometric shapes, each representing a note, or syllable, used in the traditional tune books – is once again shaking the floorboards and sending chills down spines after being lost for generations.
“It’s a really effective way to learn music quickly,” said Benjamin Bath, who started participating in the weekly singing group held at Bard College when he was a student there eight years ago and got hooked. At the weeklong schools that he helped organize, “We get people who never read music and are able to sing in four-part harmony with no instruments.” The a cappella singing style, which developed as a way for church congregations to create sacred music before instruments were available, has the raw intensity of a beam hewed with an ax – nothing like the melodic sounds of the contemporary airwaves. Shape-note singing has been referred to as “barnyard Baroque music”; folk music collector Alan Lomax described shape-note singing as “halfway between a steam calliope and a Ukrainian folk choir.”
“I have always sung and been in choirs, but this was a completely different sound of music,” said Benjamin Fenton, who works with Bath and organizes the weekly singings at the River Run Bed and Breakfast in Fleishmanns. “It doesn’t have that sweet sound. You sing it the way the poetry was written, and when the group does it together, it’s a pulsing sound, with more breathing.” Fenton added that with proper instruction, “Anyone can read music. You don’t have to have a music background. This teaches you the interval relationship of notes.”
Julia Reischel, who does publicity for the singing schools and groups organized by Bath and Fenton (a third singing group meets once a month at Kingston’s Holy Cross Episcopal Church and is organized by Jim Ulrich), attended a few of the classes at the singing schools in Roxbury and Fleischmanns. She became a convert the day she was walking in a church where a group was singing in the basement and felt the ground shake beneath her feet. The singers “make this thing together that is more than the sum of its parts, and it’s transcendent,” she said. “It sounds incredible, even if the people singing are people who can’t sing. The skills don’t matter.”
She added, “The harmonies are not like those you hear in classical or pop music. They strike an uncomfortable dissonance, which doesn’t always resolve.” Shape-note singing also revives a community tradition that is the antithesis of performance. The singers are seated in a square facing each other, organized into treble, alto, tenor and bass sections. The spiritual dimension of the four-part harmonies that they sing touches on the power and profundity of the human voice, beautifully referred to in the title of the tune book that the groups use as The Sacred Harp, which was first published in 1844 and contains more than 500 hymns. Continuously updated since then, the repertoire also include fugues and longer, single-verse anthems.
Originating in the parish churches of England in the 18th century, pre-instrument congregational church singing became popular in America in post-Revolutionary War New England, where singing schools sprang up for young people to teach them how to sing in church. The singers used tune books that, unlike the traditional hymnbook, which just listed the words, contained notations for music. One of the most ubiquitous was called The New England Psalm Singer. In 1801, William Smith and Andrew Little published a tune book based on a patented system of notated “shape notes,” using four distinct shapes, each corresponding to a solfège syllable akin to the more common do-re-mi system. “The Shape-note or Patent note system became the preferred pedagogical tool of the singing schools that spread like wildfire throughout the Midwest and the South,” said Bath. These singing schools were taught by itinerant teachers in rural communities during “laying by time,” the month in the summer between planting and harvesting.
During the Victorian Era, shape-note singing died out, as Northern urban churches began embracing organs, Sunday schools and choirs. Public education, with its music programs, also played a role in its demise, noted Bath. Only in the South, which didn’t have government-sponsored public schools until after the Civil War, did singing societies continue to use the tune books, for both church and home. All-day and multi-day community singings out of The Sacred Harp and other “old book” collections have continued right up to the present day throughout Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Texas.
Shape-note singing was rediscovered in the folk revival of the 1960s. Most recently, the inclusion of two shape-note singing performances in the soundtrack of the movie Cold Mountain spurred a new wave of enthusiasm. Tim Ericksen, an ethnomusicologist, teacher and musician who performs on the Cold Mountain soundtrack and served as a consultant, founded the Sacred Harp singing convention in Northampton, Massachusetts. You can hear the shape-note choir that Eriksen assembled for the Newport Folk Festival here: https://bit.ly/1IIbmAu. His many recordings include Northampton Harmony: The Hookes’ Regular Sing, a collection of shape-note songs (https://bit.ly/1HnEnQs), and Soul of the January Hills, a collection of traditional songs sung a cappella in a single take.
Musical styles related to the singing school and tune book tradition survive in our region. Bath said that, “the Sacred Harp singing in our region represents a direct link to a tradition that survived in Delaware County well into the 1980s. The Durand and Lester Hymn and Tune Book, which shares a nearly identical repertoire with The Sacred Harp, was popular with Old School (Primitive) Baptists throughout New York State. Several people who grew up with that tradition now participate in our singing groups.”
The singing schools that Bath and Fenton have organized are unique, he noted. “All are welcome,” said Bath. “All are taught how to sight-read, and all leave with a powerful ability to make solid harmony together.” Funded by a grant from the O’Connor Foundation, they were held in Roxbury, Fleishmanns, Margaretville and Delhi in 2013 and 2014. Fenton just won New York State Council on the Arts grants through Arts Mid-Hudson and the Roxbury Arts Group and the Pine Hill Community Center to host additional singing tutorials. The 2015 Catskills singing schools will be held at: the Pine Hill Community Center in Pine Hill from April 20-25; the Andes Presbyterian Church in Andes from April 27 - May 2; the St. Francis de Sales Parish Hall in Phoenicia from May 11 - 16; and the Bovina Presbyterian Church from June 1-6 in Bovina. These singing schools are held Monday through Friday, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., with a pot luck, graduation and community singing on each Saturday starting at 5 p.m. Cost for the week’s instruction is $20. Participants will receive a free copy of The Sacred Harp tunebook. For more information, log on to https://www.sacredharpcatskills.com/singing-schools.html.
Shape-note singing societies using The Sacred Harp tune book are also held at the following locations:
Bard Hall, North Ravine Road at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, Sunday from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. For more information contact Benjamin Bath at (617) 821-9637 or [email protected] or log on to https://student.bard.edu/clubs/sacredharp/.
River Run Bed & Breakfast, 882 Main Street, Fleischmanns, most Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. Contact Benjamin Fenton at (845) 254-4884 or [email protected].
Holy Cross Episcopal Church, 50 Pine Grove Avenue, Kingston, fourth Tuesday of each month beginning at 7 p.m. Contact Jim Ulrich at (914) 657-8314.
For more information on the history of shape-note singing, visit https:///fasola.org.