Appalachia Music

In That Morning

quay smathers singing school

Quay Smathers

Excerpt from the Quay Smathers Memorial Singing School Website:

“Quay Smathers was born in Dutch Cove south of Canton, NC, in 1913 and lived his entire life in the community. He was a master carpenter, having built homes and churches throughout Western North Carolina that are still recognized for their craftsmanship and beauty.

Born into a musical family, Quay grew up singing shaped-notes with his family as well as playing old-time string band music with his cousins. His father, Gaston Smathers, led the historic Christian Harmony shaped-note singing at Morning Star Methodist Church in Dutch Cove until his death in 1944. Quay assumed the leadership role of the singing at only 35 years of age.

His mother, Lizzie Bracken Smathers, learned shaped-note singing from Rev. Benjamin Clark, a student of William Walker, compiler of The Christian Harmony. Quay often told the story of being awakened one night as a young boy by his mother singing “Angel Band” at the top of her lungs in her sleep.

Quay’s brother Vaughn Smathers and sister Crystal Smathers Medford also participated in the Christian Harmony singings at Morning Star, and his uncle, George “Bruz” Smathers, sang until his death at age 101.

Quay played tenor banjo and guitar in a string band with his cousins as a young man, and with his daughters and sons-in-law later in life in the popular Dutch Cove Old Time String Band. But perhaps Quay was known on an even broader scale for his tireless efforts to teach the Blue Ridge style of shaped-note singing and officiate one of the oldest continuous shaped-note singings in the entire world.

Featured in documentaries, magazines, books, and even doctoral dissertations, Quay was the recipient of the prestigious North Carolina Heritage Award in 1990. He was honored in the NC Legislature and performed at the induction ceremony for dignitaries from throughout the state. Other accolades include the Bascomb Lamar Lunsford Award from Mars Hill College as well as inclusion in the 1974 Personalities of the South for “distinguished and outstanding service and achievements in the community and state.”

Quay was in high demand to teach workshops for novice shaped-note singers at folk festivals as well as speaking at seminars for folklorists, ethno-musicologists and foreign academicians researching Early American music. He led numerous shaped-note singing schools at universities and churches, always caring more about mentoring new singers than any honors afforded to him by others.

Quay died in 1997 at age 84, and at the time many tributes were written about him in area newspapers that are still found online. Many of the  singers he taught drove from out-of-state to sing some of his favorite shaped-note hymns at his funeral.

Today, his daughter June Smathers-Jolley continues to lead the historic shaped-note singing at Morning Star United Methodist Church in Canton in her father’s place, and Elizabeth Smathers-Shaw continues to teach folk music passed down to her by her father, including shaped-note singing, in Ohio.”

The girls and I attended the Quay Smathers Memorial Singing School for the second time a few weeks ago. None of us are proficient at shape-note singing, but all of us have fallen in love with the folks who do know what they’re doing-namely Liz and June who are Quay Smathers’ daughters.

I’ve known about shape-note singing for many years, but never realized there are differing styles until we attended the Quay Smathers Memorial Singing School. They have a wonderful website with tons of information about shape-note singing. The site also offers many opportunities to listen to the Blue Ridge Style of shape-note singing. You can visit the website here.

For this week’s picking and grinning in the kitchen spot I’m sharing my favorite song from the shape-note schools that I’ve attended In That Morning.

The Quay Smathers Memorial Singing School shares this information about the video:

“This video features a recording of Richard Moss leading “In That Morning” at Etowah, NC – circa 1973. (Richard is in the first photograph.) The recording was made by Dr. Edith Card for her dissertation research on the performance style of Christian Harmony shaped-note singing in the Blue Ridge Mountains at the time. Moss was a master of all leaders, casting a spell on the singers and bringing out, in his words, “a sad weeping sound” to the numerous minor songs found in the book. Photographs include other old-time leaders – Quay Smathers, Lyman Clark and Leonard Westmoreland, all from the Canton, NC, area. Singings depicted are from Mountain Heritage Day at Western Carolina University and Old Folks Day at Morning Star United Methodist Church in the Dutch Cove area of Canton, birthplace of Quay Smathers and scores of other Blue Ridge style shaped-note singers. Tucked among some of the singers in these photographs are several of the QSMSS teachers – Laura Boosinger, Elizabeth Smathers-Shaw, Lynn Shaw and Zack Allen, all of whom learned at the knees of the old-timers.”

Although its doubtful that I will ever become proficient at shape-note singing, there is something about the hauntingly beautiful sound that speaks to my heart.

I hope you enjoyed the video, be on the look out for more Smathers history coming later this week. And be sure to jump over to the Quay Smathers Memorial Singing School website and poke around-I know you’ll enjoy your visit!


*Source: Video, photo, and all quoted text: Quay Smathers Memorial Singing School website

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  • Reply
    Carol Cook
    April 14, 2020 at 10:35 am

    I was raised in New Mexico but my mother was from North Eastern Alabama and every summer we would go “home” for six weeks. The highlight of the trip for me was Singing School. That was over 70 years ago. Thanks for this video and the sweet memories it recalled. I find it a balm of comfort during this time of uncertainty.

  • Reply
    Maxine Appleby
    September 3, 2017 at 10:23 pm

    I do believe when we all arrive in heaven, the music that the angels will be singing will be shape note singing. Oh, Lordy, I do hope so!!!

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    April 30, 2017 at 10:47 pm

    I love the sound of shape note singing.
    Cheryl asked about singing in Gilmer County. I grew up there and I believe Ebanezer Church located on hwy 52 east still holds an annual singing. It’s located in the Cartecay section of Gilmer County.

  • Reply
    Donna W
    April 30, 2017 at 9:20 pm

    I was raised in Church of Christ, and we never used instruments in worship. We sang by shaped notes. A couple of times growing up someone would come and spend evenings for a week teaching us to read shaped notes, and we would actually sing the notes.

  • Reply
    Judy Mincey
    April 30, 2017 at 7:59 pm

    As a four shape singer, I am still challenged by the different seven shape systems, but I love trying. I was privileged to sing with Quay a number of times. So glad his daughters are carrying his legacy into the future. Anyone with questions about anything Shapenote should go to fasola. org , where ther are links to Shapenote activities all around the world.

  • Reply
    Dee Parks
    April 30, 2017 at 6:11 pm

    Shape Note Singing school certainly got my attention. My grandmother lived in MS close to the AL line. She loved to go to Sacred Harp Singing. When I read your blog; I remembered I had her old Hymn Books and one is yellow, and tattered. I searched my library until I found it. It’s title is “Favorite Songs and Hymns Shape Notes and has a small picture of a harp on it. Don’t know why it was called Sacred Harp Singing because they didn’t play instruments, they just sang the scale “do, ra, me, fa, so,” until they all had the harmony down and then they sang the words.
    You can also see and hear a lot of this type singing on you tube. Apparently, this type of singing is coming back in the big cities.
    Thanks for the post. Made me stop and Thank the Lord for my wonderful Grandmother!! She could also play the piano and organ.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    April 30, 2017 at 12:27 pm

    My father and uncle Wayne were shape note readers and singers. They would always start their songs with the Do-Re-Me scale but rarely sang out the notes. Uncle Do McHan (Daddy’s uncle not mine) sang with them a lot and their Sunday afternoon singing and hair cuttings. He also sang shape note music. Whereas everbody else pronounced “do” like the female deer “doe”, he pronounced it dü. All us [email protected]$$ kids thought it was funny and got to calling him Do McHan. His name was Emlis and his wife’s was Emily (couldn’t have been a better combination of names if it had been planned).
    I learned (self taught) a little shape note music way back then but got bored and left it behind. Now it is just so much dust on the eraser from the chalkboard of life.
    “everbody” isn’t a typo. That’s how I talk. And proudly so♫

  • Reply
    Paula Rhodarmer
    April 30, 2017 at 11:00 am

    I so enjoyed today’s post about shaped-note singing and Quay Smathers. Some of my earliest memories are of attending Old Folks Day with my grandmother. Her grandmother was Ann Fullbright from Dutch Cove and the Smathers, Fullbrights, Rhodarmers (my husband’s family), Shooks, Messers, and others of German descent settled that area before Haywood was a county. Every Old Folks Day seems to be a link to a precious past that I don’t want to ever forget. I always take my grandchildren with me so it will be a part of their lives too. I am so thankful to the daughters and family of Quay Smathers for keeping all of this alive. And I am so thankful to you for the part you play in saving our heritage.

  • Reply
    April 30, 2017 at 9:34 am

    The Scotch influence is definitely there and I can almost hear the bagpipes! On the few occasions I was able to visit my out-of-state granddad’s church as a little girl, I fondly remember being caught up in this hauntingly beautiful singing.
    I met June and Liz last year at a local singing I just happened to find and they were so kind and helpful. I fully intended to attend the school this year but was unable to do so.
    It was a sweet surprise to read your post this morning as I have been trying to locate churches/places in and around Gilmer County that hold Christian Harmony style singings.
    Thank you for your blog and sweet blessings to you and your family.

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    April 30, 2017 at 8:50 am

    I always loved shaped note singing even though I never attended a church where their were shape note singers…I always wanted to learn and I think I mentioned this to you a few years ago, asking if you and your family were shape note singers.
    I spent so much time at my aunts home between Clyde and Canton that it is a wonder that I didn’t attend a church there that had shape note singers…My aunt attended the Baptist church In Clyde, but don’t remember shape note singing…al though heard her mention friends who were shape note singers…
    It is a beautiful sound! Have you ever seen the video where the shape note singers sing on the mountain gathering…Wow, does that sound resonate thru the mountains!
    Thanks Tipper, enjoyed this post.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    April 30, 2017 at 8:46 am

    There is something there that is haunting and drawing. But I am not sure there is a name for it.
    Makes me anticipate that morning they were singing about. Maybe that is what they were doing to.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    April 30, 2017 at 8:07 am

    Tip, you are correct that certainly has a haunting sound to it, reminiscent to bagpipes. We are very fortunate that the Smathers family has made an ongoing place in history for it!
    I think I’ll be hearing that song in my mind all day!

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