Heritage Spotlight On Music In Appalachia 2010

Shape Note Singing

quay smathers singing school

Quay Smathers

When I put the gospel music question out to Blind Pig readers-most of the comments left had something to do with Shape Note Singing. The tradition of Shape Note Singing is sometimes called Sacred Harp Singing.

Here are a few excerpts about the history of Shape Note Singing from one of my all time favorite Appalachian Writers-John Parris.


Old-Time Shape-Note Singing Still Lives

The heart-stirring voices of the FASOLA singers can still be heard here in the highlands where folks never have lost the feeling of Christian Harmony. They are a unique coterie, practitioners of “do-ra-me” or “fa-so-la” singing, who apply Elizabethan names to the notes of songs made in pre-Revolutionary America and sing them with the help of the 155-year-old “patent notes”.

The men and women who came here as pioneer settlers shortly after the American Revolution found much of their spiritual strength in the peculiar gift called fasola singing or Christian Harmony. When they first came their hope was anchored to the axe, the rifle, and the Bible-their trinity for survival.

Camp meetings, held at some central place in a settlement, were introduced and brought a new way of life to the mountains. At such meetings the Gospel was preached two or three time a day. And it was through these meetings that a need for congregational singing, as a means of expressing pent-up emotion, began to make itself felt.

The gift of song as part of their religious services was given to them by a man whose recognition of the opportunity for a contribution to the development of the section came shortly after he had entered on what was to be his life’s work-the teaching of singing. The man was William Walker who was known far and wide as “Singing Billy.” He was born on Tyger River in Union County, South Carolina, in 1809, and while still a child moved to the Greenville-Spartanburg district.

In indicating the sounds used in his fa-so-la book, each note was represented by a character of differing shape. This made the reading easier for those who had had so little opportunity to learn to read at all. The fa-so-la method, in use by other early song writers, was not entirely unknown in the mountains where before “Singing Billy’s” coming a few scattered copies of Sacred Harp, Harp of Columbia and other like books had found their way.

The fame of the singing master, the one called “Singing Billy,” and his book, the one called Southern Harmony, was not long in spreading through the southern states, where annual classes of singing school were taught by him or by someone trained by him.

As means of travel improved, the singing classes became regular seasonal events. When crops had been laid by, and before time for the fall harvest, every little community in the mountains had a session of “singing school.”

Walker described his method of teaching thusly: “Not more than one in every fourteen can make a musician, but every person has time and tune, more or less, so all may learn to sing.”

Whatever social life existed in the scattered settlements, it centered around the old song book, and many a courtship had it’s start at the yearly fa-so-la class.

Excerpts taken from My Mountains My People by John Parris



When the girls were 8 years old we attended one of those singing schools John Parris was talking about-the North Georgia School of Gospel Music. It was a 2 week school where we learned the basics of singing Gospel music-which included the fa-so-la technique.

I know Shape Note Singing continues in my area of Appalachia. The John C. Campbell Folk School encourages the tradition-and this past weekend as the Blind Pig gang was performing at WCU’s Heritage Day-just across the way there was an old time Shape Note Singing going on.

Though the tradition continues-my only experience with Shape Note Singing was at the 2 week music school. Hopefully some of you who have more experience-will leave a comment and tell us what you know.


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  • Reply
    March 11, 2012 at 8:57 am

    hi, each saturday as i drive to and from walmart, i listen to NPR and they have 3 hours of bluegrass music, now i don’t like ALL bluegrass, but one of the dj’s likes the old shape note singing and plays some really wonderful music. yesterday as i listened to the songs, i remembered this post. to find it again i went to my post about my dad and found the link to this. just reread it. this was the first time i ever hear shape note singing and i did it all my life in KY. still love it and always will.

  • Reply
    September 29, 2010 at 9:15 am

    Hi, Tipper. i commented yesterday but am back to reread today. in 1997 in a small Baptist Church, while in choir practice, I happened to be standing by our lead singer who KNEW music, a wonderful sophrano. I was singing what i learned as a child in KY. when we stopped she said i don’t know what you are singing but its pretty. Now i know it was and is shape note singing. she really hurt my feelings at that time. anyway this post has opened my eyes that I was singing that sweet harmony your post talks about because its what we sung in church. I never learned to play or sing REAL notes, just the shaped ones. all about harmony.
    i am doing a post tomrrow about those days and know you will like it. i will remind you tomorrow, i found a wonderful video with a river baptism and alison singing down to the river to pray.

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    September 28, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    My constant sorrow is having never been taught, having never learned to read and play music. Oh, I can sing and pretty well, I think and I sing a lot and I listen to Bluegrass and Ol’ Timey music and mountain music and Bluegrass gospel. But, not knowing how to make music, it hurts my soul.
    When your brother plays the guitar, I think … if I had started when I was a kid and kept it up …. maybe, just maybe I could have … if somebody had … but I think a only small part of those who want to play ever get as good as your folks there in those videos you show us.
    But, I can sing “You’re Drifting Too far From The Shore” real good … I think. And, “I saw The Light”, … shucks.

  • Reply
    September 28, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    This was such an interesting post. The first time I ever heard it was a demonstration years back in one of the little churches in cades cove. It was so amazing to me, wish I knew more about it. It was so heavenly to listen to.

  • Reply
    September 28, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    Didn’t know what it was called, but grew up singing like that in our little country church. Loved it. It’s a shame so many of the old ways are getting lost.

  • Reply
    September 28, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    sadly this old gospel singing is disapearring, this is the song and singing i miss so much. our churches here in Florida no longer sing the old hymns, i am listening to rock of ages right now, and i am flipping back in time to our little church in sloans valley Ky…. i miss the harmony and the harps

  • Reply
    kenneth o. hoffman
    September 27, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    tipper: one fine subject,shape note singing . my dad and his five brothers learned it in church on hazel creek. they sang for us at the drop of a hat. my father would never sing alone.i enjoy good old gospel any way you sing it. ive a hunch thats the way the angels sing god bless you all for your contribution to the preservation of mountain folk lore and music . your friend k.o.h

  • Reply
    September 27, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    Thank you for the history on shape note singing, Tipper. I’ve never heard it called Sacred Harp Singing. I’ve seen many pictures from ‘singing schools’ held in this little mountain community back in the early 1900s.
    The hymn book I learned to play the piano with had shape notes and I remember how weird it looked the first time I saw a hymn book without them!

  • Reply
    September 27, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    I have to say I hadn’t done much of this kind of singing until this past season, when we toured a sacred harp setting of Hallelujah. It was great fun, and Cantus decided to add a couple more tunes and even recorded them for our upcoming release called That Eternal Day, which should be released this November. We also recorded and have been touring William Billings’ Lamentation over Boston, which commemorates The Boston Massacre, and is sung in that early American style. Keep an eye out for that this fall.

  • Reply
    Donna W
    September 27, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    I was raised in the Church of Christ. Churches of Christ still sing a cappella, and their song books have the shaped notes. Just look for your nearest Church of Christ (I know there must be some nearby) and you will find shape-note singing.

  • Reply
    September 27, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    the Folk School has a Shape Note weekend every june. I had planned to attend this year, but got misinformed about the day of the big sing and got there after poking around in Murphy all day, just as it was over–i’d thought it was on Sunday! But i now know every year it is a big gathering of shape note singers from all around on a saturday in mid-june. see you there next year? 🙂

  • Reply
    Vera Guthrie
    September 27, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    As my Mama would say “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket”. I am really good at playing the radio.

  • Reply
    September 27, 2010 at 5:49 pm

    Hi Tipper, OH MY—wish I could remember… I met a guy once whose family were very involved in a church where they did Shape Note Singing…. I even heard a video of that family… BUT–that was years ago, and I have forgotten who it was that talked about it….
    I loved hearing that video at the time –and would love to hear more of it. I remember it being VERY loud —and almost hollering kind of music. BUT–I loved it….
    Thanks for helping me bring back some memories……

  • Reply
    September 27, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    I enjoyed reading the piece you included by John Parris. I read a study once, which stated that ‘singing harmonies’ did not exist in Appalachia until the singing schools were introduced. I really couldn’t imagine that, and am glad someone has done better research.It seems as settlers moved west, it was the music that gave them continuity.
    I didn’t realize anyone was still teaching the shaped-note method. I never learned it, but my Daddy used to have a couple of books; and if I dig around enough, maybe I can find one.
    Keep up the good work!

  • Reply
    September 27, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    Great Post! “When We Hear The Trumpet” was lovely.
    I have been a little obsessed with taking a class at John C. Campbell Folk School for some time now.

  • Reply
    Vicki Lane
    September 27, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    Oh, I love the John Parris books! We gave them all to my grandfather who saw many similarities to his boyhood in rural Alabama. And I love the sound of shape-note singing — kind of wild and strange to me at first, having grown up with Episcopalian hymns.

  • Reply
    September 27, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    I enjoyed the downloading of ‘When
    we hear the Trumpet Sound.’ As a
    youngster I sang the second part to my brother’s lead in the old
    country church revivals. Sure wish
    I could get my hands on the guy who did record some of our songs.
    But he has gone on now and so has
    my brother, but I can remember those times so well. I like what
    B. Ruth said, “the pure joy of singing that makes for a wonderful
    gathering.” …Ken

  • Reply
    Fishing Guy
    September 27, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Tipper: The download was really neat.

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    September 27, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    Hope you had a great time this weekend…Would have loved to have been there…
    Thank you for your post on shape note and sacred harp singing..a lot of folks have never heard it.
    In some areas of the Appalachians the harmonious sound is much richer than others….
    I think most youth today only recognize the sound that they have heard from the sound tracks of the more recent movies, “Cold Mountain” and “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou”..LOL
    Shape note singing is making a revival, (pun intended).LOL
    Each to his own, some using 4 shape notes and some 7.. and some with instrument accompaniments, unless you are using your “sacred harp” which is your own voice and voices of the congregation or the group singing…
    I have been to several churches around that still use the books and sing in the shape note harmony…Like all music some harmonies are better than others..but for the most part it seems to be the pure joy of singing that makes for a wonderful gathering..
    When we were selling ‘tiques…we had people constantly searching for the old shape note books/hymnals..
    Thanks again for your post…
    It’s cool today and I am ready for a “singing convention” with a picnic on the ground and “fried apple pies”…LOL

  • Reply
    janet c
    September 27, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    When I was 7 I learned to sing with shape notes first in Krypton Kentucky where my family is from then believe it or not in Hawaii on an Army School. I also learned how to line sing. That is where a person sings a line of a song and then everyone else repeats it.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    September 27, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Tipper–To my lasting regret, somehow my genetic make-up found the muscial parts of Appalachian life passing me by, never mind the fact that most of my family have, to one degree or another, musical talent. My brother Don (who posts here pretty regularly )can carry a tune and make a harmonica hum, and our sister played piano and sings well. However, it was the next generation, my daughter and Don’s children, who got the real musical blessings. My daughter helped put herself through school (Presbyterian College) on a voice scholarship and sang professionally with the Charlotte Oratorio singers for a time, while one of Don’s sons is working on a Ph. D. in clarinet and two others can pick and sing quite satisfactorily. Then there’s me, sure to set the dogs howling and bring grimaces of dismay to all but the chronically deaf if I so much as tghreaten to sin. Other than being able to clog and, like David Allen Coe says in one of his songs, “knowing the words to ever song Hank Williams ever wrote,” I’m hopeless.
    Enough of that misery, but I’m so glad you mentioned and quoted John Parris in connection with shape notes. Old John may have liked his tipple a bit too much (too bad that age differences meant he never got to meet “Popcorn” Sutton), but he was a grand chronicler of mountain days and ways. I have been blessed to know a number of the people he wrote about, along with having familiarity with a lot of the places he celebrated. Why in the world someone hasn’t reprinted his books or, better still, collected some of his best pieces from various books into an anthology is beyond me. Come to think of it, since I’ve done a dozen or so books of that nature myself, maybe I’ll suggest it to UNC Press or someone like that. There may be copyright issues, but it would be a worthy project. Meanwhile, for your readers, here’s a list of his mountain-related books:
    My Mountains, My People
    These Storied Mountains
    Mountain Bred
    Mountain Cooking
    Roaming the Mountains
    The Cherokee Story
    He also wrote a book based on WWII experiences as a reporter and maybe one other (as Grandpa Joe would have said, “right now I disremember”). All the above-mentioned works are gems.
    Jim Casada

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