Shape-Note Singing

Shape-note singing is a musical tradition and practice of community gatherings singing sacred music using a system of musical notation in which the noteheads are printed in distinct shapes that indicate their scale degree and musical syllable (fa, sol, la, etc.). Shape-note systems used in Mississippi include the “fasola” system, with four shapes, and the “doremi,” with seven shapes. Both systems were employed in singing schools: these brief courses in sight-reading and part-singing represented the first American musical institution, improving singing in churches while offering young people a rare chance to socialize with the opposite sex. Denounced by critics as uncouth, the simplified notation, which first appeared in 1801, caught on in rural areas of the South and West and became standard in sacred music publication. Though singers at Natchez churches sang urban music printed in round notes as early as 1820, the settlers in the Chickasaw and Choctaw cessions of the 1830s brought singing schools and shape-note tunebooks, including Missouri Harmony (1820) and Southern Harmony (1835), into the area.

In 1849 Lazarus J. Jones of Jasper County published The Southern Minstrel. Printed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this book contained standard tunes from other southern sources as well as several new compositions and arrangements by Jones and other east-central Mississippians. The book went through a second printing in 1855 but subsequently faded from view. Jesse T. White, a nephew of Sacred Harp compiler B. F. White and composer of ten of the songs in that book, was clerk of Winston County in the 1850s before moving to Texas. He may have introduced The Sacred Harp to the hill country of central Mississippi.

Evidence indicates that at the close of the Civil War, all-day singings from The Sacred Harp occurred in several locations around the state. At least one—in 1866 in Calhoun County—was described as a reunion of soldiers with their families. Such events soon became annual community homecomings and memorials, attracting thousands of attendees. W. A. Beasley of Houston and Henry J. Hawkins of Ellzey were among the leading singers of that period and played a role in the formation of Sacred Harp conventions in Calhoun (1878), Chickasaw (1882), and Webster (1883) Counties. These and other conventions provided a forum where established teachers met to sing together, to examine and certify new teachers, and to demonstrate the accomplishments of their classes. At both annual singings and conventions, leaders were called in turn to stand in the midst of the assembled singers and direct one or more songs. This custom persists today.

As African American literacy increased, black singers established singing schools and conventions. The Alabama-Mississippi Singing Convention (1887), which uses gospel music today, may originally have sung from The Sacred Harp or William Walker’s Christian Harmony. The Pleasant Ridge Colored Musical Convention of Calhoun County (1898) sang from The Sacred Harp, as did its sister conventions in Chickasaw and Webster Counties.

Sacred Harp singing in Mississippi, especially in Calhoun, Chickasaw, Webster, and adjoining counties, has long been identified by a unique practice not found elsewhere: the use of seven syllables (doremi) to name the four shaped notes—in effect, disregarding the shapes that help other singers learn the notes. This practice appears to date back to the immediate post–Civil War period. It may derive from the transitional 1854 edition of William Walker’s Southern Harmony, which offered precisely this alternative to the fasola system for singers who wished to sing the more modern seven syllables with the more conservative repertory of the four-shape books.

After the Civil War, singing schools and shape notes became increasingly identified with the South while declining in popularity in other regions. Many teachers switched from the four-shape system to a seven-shape system to keep pace with new teaching methods. Leading singing masters established “music normal schools” to train teachers. These teachers used books from southern firms such as Ruebush and Kieffer and A. J. Showalter, which began to publish small, cheap collections of music every year or two. These upright songbooks gradually began to supplant the large oblong tunebooks, with their fixed repertoire. Showalter’s Class, Choir, and Congregation (1888), a transitional book, remained in print well into the twentieth century: a “Class Choir” state convention, chaired by William E. Lane, was organized in Neshoba County in 1956. Mass-market publishers such as J. D. Vaughan (1902), V. O. Stamps (1924), and his partner J. R. Baxter (Stamps-Baxter Music, 1926) served the market by printing one or more books a year in a style known today as shape-note gospel music. The songs, always in major keys and intended to be accompanied on the piano, imitated the popular march and dance music of the postbellum era. While traditional singings, sometimes even unaccompanied, persisted in many areas, other local conventions became little more than quartet concerts. A state singing convention held its first regular session in 1934 in Newton County, with W. D. Rayner presiding. The Blackwood Brothers of Choctaw County emerged from this convention to achieve fame as gospel performers.

During the early twentieth century The Sacred Harp held its ground and continued to spread into new territory. The Mississippi State Sacred Harp Singing Convention was founded in 1929 at Houston with W. T. Gwin as its first president. Despite its name, it always included Christian Harmony singers and allowed songs from both books. This body gradually began to attract singers from the Delta area, where immigrant hill folk from Webster and Calhoun Counties were holding singings before 1930, and from southeastern Mississippi, where the South Mississippi Convention was organized in 1947 using the W. M. Cooper revision of The Sacred Harp. Black singers established the West Harmony Convention (Grenada County) in 1922 and the Negro Mississippi State Sacred Harp Musical Convention in 1934 (organized by W. A. Wandwick, Frank Payne, and Elmer A. Enochs).

Northeastern Mississippi, where singers used the fasola system popular in Alabama and elsewhere, had little contact with either state convention; the area became a fertile field for Alabama singing teachers such as S. M. Denson, R. A. Canant, and F. M. Frederick. Outside this area, however, Mississippi singers had little contact with their counterparts in Alabama and other states. In 1959 R. A. Stewart of Houston began a weekly half-hour radio program of Sacred Harp singing and announcements that continues to this day. He also attended Alabama singings and established an annual singing in Houston, reestablished in Oxford after his death, where singers from the two states were encouraged to meet.

During the 1960s the Mississippi State Convention reported as many as seventy annual singings, not counting black singings and Northeast Mississippi fasola singings. Since 1970, singings from The Sacred Harp and Christian Harmony have declined over most of the state. Some conventions have been discontinued, while other three-day conventions have been reduced to two days or even one. The remaining singers, however, travel farther and stay in touch more effectively via the Internet, as Sacred Harp singing has spread beyond the American South. Shape-note gospel singings and conventions have declined as well, and singing schools have become rare except for denominational schools using church hymnals.

Further Reading

  • Joe Dan Boyd, Mississippi Folklore Register (Fall 1971)
  • Buell E. Cobb Jr., The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music (1978)
  • David Warren Steel, American Music (Summer 1988)
  • Paula Tadlock, in Discourse in Ethnomusicology: Essays in Honor of George List, ed. John Hasse, Roberta L. Singer, and Ruth M. Stone (1978)
  • Chiquita Walls, The African American Shape Note and Vocal Music Singing Convention Directory, special publication of Mississippi Folklife (1994)
  • Chiquita Walls, La-Miss-Ala Shape Note Newsletter (November–December 1999)
  • John Quincy Wolf, Mississippi Folklore Register (Summer 1970)
  • John Quincy Wolf, Journal of American Folklore (October–December 1968)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Shape-Note Singing
  • Author
  • Keywords Shape-Note Singing
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date December 3, 2021
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018