Shaped note singing was gladly embraced by communities
by Rob Neufeld
Singing schools were great sensations here 150 years ago.
Traveling teachers taught townspeople to read music in one day, using shaped notes; and to be able to direct themselves, singing from purchased books, after one week.
The Gashes Creek Baptist Church in east Asheville came together in 1856 to preach the Bible and sing hymns. Communal singing was a main part of the faith.
“Rule number 1 of the Church System,” writes church historian Rowena Sorrells, was “”to commence with singing and prayer.”
Boys and girls, as well as matrons and patrons, came to the singing events, which brought together genders and ages. One can look mighty attractive praising the Lord.
Gashes Creek used the seven-shape system created by Jesse B. Aikin, and published in his 1853 book, “The Christian Minstrel.”
Singing masters had once competed for clients, inventing ever-better methods and anthologies.
“Singing Billy” Walker from the Spartanburg area, after having seen his famous four-note system (published in “Southern Harmony,” 1835) nudged out by the seven, created his own seven-shape system for his book, “Christian Harmony” (1866).
Walker had first contacted Aikin, recounts Mars Hill College music professor Joel Reed, “and had asked, ‘May I use your seven-shape system that you used back before the Civil War?’ and Aikin said, No!’
So, Walker developed his own and “it became the accepted and famous seven-shape system."
There’s nothing wrong with the four-note system. If you begin with C on the piano, the scale starts with two groups of three notes that echo each other. So, it’s not do-re-mi-fa-so-la; its fa-so-la, fa-so-la.
Aikin had laughed off the four-note system as being comparable to having seven children and giving them only four names.
Even with the seven-note system in place, singing masters proposed easier-to-memorize symbols.
In the Shenandoah Valley, says Reed, some people were using “books (that) had animals for the shapes. It had rabbits. It had a deer, I guess, for doe.”
“You put a face on the note,” explains Laura Boosinger, banjo player, singer, and teacher. She participates in Old Folks Day, the 121-year-old annual singing, which takes place the second Sunday in September at Morning Star United Methodist Church in Canton.
“The congregational singing” had been “as the braying of an ass,” Boosinger relates, quoting the opinion of one who had heard local church music before the coming of shaped notes. “It did not instill worshipful experiences.”
“Singing masters were like revival preachers,” Boosinger adds. “They would go from community to community, hold singing school, take up a little money, usually in the fall after harvest.”
The song books the masters sold included “pages and pages of music theory,” notes Boosinger. “After (the master) left, you’d still get together to sing. Then you’d find out about a community thirty miles away that also knew how to sing. And then, these little country churches would start having singing conventions.”
Singing masters had come to Haw Creek in the 1920s and lodged at the home of Burgin Reese while running the temporary school.
At the Bethesda Methodist Church, Reese’s son, Robert related, “one man became so enamored of salvation, he climbed to a tree to jump into his Savior’s arms.”
Shaped note singing declined with the spread of gospel music and public school education. It has survived for traditional reasons and for its communal experience.
The style of the singing, Reed says, “has been described as raw…It’s not about training the voice, and having the voice sound pretty. It’s about singing from your shoes when the spirit overcomes you.”
Learning to read music is easier if you only have to have a sense of how a scale sounds. It’s like picking up a harmonica in any key and playing a known tune.
An instance of the preservation of shaped note singing occurred when Boosinger came to Warren Wilson College at age 18 and studied with Quay Smathers, recipient of the N.C. Folk Heritage Award in 1991.
Smathers had played with the legendary Smathers’ Family Band, a group Boosinger joined as banjo player. For nearly 50 years, Smathers also led the shaped note singing tradition at Morning Star Church.
“Mountain Grown Music,” a Haywood County cultural website, reveals, on its Quay Smathers page, that “Quay began singing and learning music at his mother’s knee. One of the (Dutch Cove) old timers, Bob Miller, loaned young Quay his first songbook.”