A Shape-Note Sampling

Greetings, readers.  It’s been more than a month since my last post, and much has been transpiring in my second semester here at Geneva College.  I’m continuing on as a communications major and preparing to add a music minor; I’ve picked up an apparently permanent job as “staff accompanist” for several of Geneva’s voice majors; and just two weeks ago I was touring Ohio with the college choir, The Genevans, singing a concert of a cappella psalms in various churches.  For a psalm-singing nerd, that’s pretty close to heaven (and I hope to share more about it at some point).

Today, however, I just participated in a very unique experience from a rather different part of the church music spectrum: Sacred Harp singing.  This old American tradition is often called “shape-note singing” because its hymnals assign their noteheads four different shapes to aid non-musical singers in picking up the complex four-part harmonies.  The first verse of every song is sung in a simplified form of solfeggio with the syllables “fa,” “so,” “la,” and “mi.”  After that the words are sung—always with a strong rhythm and as much gusto as possible.

Sacred Harp setting of

Sacred Harp setting of “Amazing Grace”

Featured Recording

The biggest contributor to the texts in the songbook we were using today was Isaac Watts, whose hymns and psalm paraphrases have had a tremendous impact on American hymnody.  While I’m not a huge fan of Watts’s attempts to “Christianize the psalms” by turning them into loose paraphrases, it was nice to find so many connections in our singing today to texts I already know and love from the Psalter.  Below is our group singing a Watts setting of a portion of Psalm 65:

[youtube http://youtu.be/syOMXuEJPeo]

What made this hymn-sing such an unusual experience, however, was its undenominational character.  Perhaps even “undenominational” is an understatement, since this event attracted many participants who love shape-note singing simply because of its cultural and communal ties, not because they have any religious attachment to the words they sing.  One man I had lunch with, who views himself as undeclared with regard to religion, views many of the song lyrics as “hair-raising.”

On one hand, the thought of self-declared nonbelievers singing these psalms and hymns is a little jarring.  It’s unsettling because it forces me to ask: Do I really believe everything I’m singing?  Am I still being nourished by the content of worship, or have I become hopelessly preoccupied with its form?  Has church music in total become nothing more than a quaint set of styles and traditions?

So, in that respect, this shape-note singing experience served to me as a sober reminder that God delights not in hollow worship but rather in broken hearts (Psalm 51:17).  On the other hand, however, it also struck me that these words—even if sung by unbelieving hearts—continue to attest to the glory of God.  And as we sang, “‘Tis by Thy strength the mountains stand, God of eternal power,” I found myself rejoicing, for the day is approaching when all flesh shall come to the One who alone hears prayer (Psalm 65:2).


More selections from this hymn-sing:

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