Thursday, January 19, 2012

shaping notes

This is turning into quite the American semester. (That's a better lead than "Sorry for not blogging.") Between a Copland seminar and a Sacred Harp independent study, I've got America on my mind. I meant to do a long thing at some point in the fall about Ives, Hilary Hahn's great CD, 9/11, and Occupy, but that somehow slipped away into the ether. But shape notes! Now that's something worth talking about.

Shape notes are quite the rage these days. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus sang Am I Born to Die at a New Sounds Live concert last October, followed by David T. Little's Am I Born, a remix of sorts (it looks like they're reprising it in March). On Friday, the Asphalt Orchestra is playing arrangements of shape note tunes in the Met Museum's new American Wing, apparently inspired by field recordings from the '40s-'60s (which ones?). The Brooklyn Youth Chorus and Brooklyn Phil are also sponsoring a shape note sing-a-long on February 26.

Unfortunately, the audio for the Brooklyn Youth concert is no longer online. Their Am I Born To Die was extremely polished; Little's piece is a gorgeous, percussive explosion of the tune. The BYC didn't "sing the shapes" for the former; I asked Little via Twitter whether he used shapes in his piece and he said "not using shapes, alas (though there's totally a sibelius plug-in!), but following the basic part writing rules, sound etc."

I'm curious about what those basic part writing rules and sound are.

Shape note music, and in particular, the Sacred Harp, has always been "discovered." Going back to George Pullen Jackson's description of the singing community as a "lost tonal tribe," the story told about Sacred Harp has been one of outsiders looking in. The stunning sound of the music can't help but be described as raw, primitive, a kind of rural mouthwash for its weary cosmopolitan discoverers. It's constantly viewed as historical Americana (and usually on the brink of extinction) -- the description of the New Sounds concert calls it "19th Century shape note singing," as if there wasn't a huge community of singers around the nation doing the music every week.

Am I Born To Die is actually an 1816 tune called "Idumea C.M," (songs were often named for places) by Ananias Davisson, with a text by the Charles Wesley. It first appeared as a three-part in Davisson's Kentucky Harmony, had an alto part added by William Walker in the 1867 Christian Harmony, and ended up in the Sacred Harp as well. So what was the BYC singing, and on what version did Little base his tune on?

I'm also curious about the February sing-a-long, which advertises itself as taking "one back in time to the Brooklyn of the 1820s, when the great tradition of American shape note singing was the rage in New York." My impression of the history so far (and please contradict me on this, I'm very curious) is that shape notes basically migrated down south and out west at the end of the 18th century, as the elitist "Better Music" movement replaced American harmonies with European techniques. Was there some kind of 1820s Brooklyn renaissance? (who was exporting the Southern books to Brooklyn?) Shape note singing is traditionally unaccompanied -- what's the orchestra going to be doing? (Edit: Nevermind: see comments. The "Better Music" movement was on the rise in the mid 19th century, so shape notes were apparently still going strong in the Northeast in the 1820s. I am curious what those communities were like, though.)

I don't mean to criticize any of this. The shape note tradition has long been flexible, and at least in its most modern iteration willing to accommodate all who are interested (Kiri Miller's Traveling Home handles this issue well) -- the battles fought in the 19th century about four shapes versus seven shapes, or whether gospel tunes should be allowed in the tunebooks, aren't exactly raging anymore. But if you're not singing the shapes and you're performing the music for an audience (shape note music is inherently communal and participatory), at what point are you still doing shape note singing?

I first discovered the Sacred Harp a few years ago when researching my undergrad thesis on Nico Muhly. If you listen at 0:40 here, you'll hear Amidon singing rather loudly.

In an interview, I found out that Muhly was drawing on Amidon's knowledge of Sacred Harp singing -- the loud drawl is characteristic of the Southern style. Amidon learned Sacred Harp via his parents, who sang in the Word of Mouth chorus, a group of '70s New England folk revivalists. I picked up their Nonesuch album and fell in love with the sound.

Go here and click on Kedron Watch this, too:

Kedron's an interesting case. David W. Music has traced it back to Amos Pilsbury's 1799 United States' Sacred Harmony, the earliest Southern tunebook. In that book, it was listed anonymous, and may be the one of the first American folk hymns -- an oral transcription of a genuine folk tune, set into four parts. Kedron made its way into multiple tunebooks (including the Sacred Harp) in different versions attributed to different authors.

Sam Amidon recorded it on I See the Sign. Here's a live version:

So we have a song that was originally a folk tune, transcribed and set into three-part shape-note harmony at the beginning of the 19th century, reprinted with an alto part in Walker's Southern Harmony, eventually reprinted in four voices in the Sacred Harp, picked up by a group of Northern revivalists who record it as concert music, and then passed down to a son who makes it stark folk song for solo voice and guitar, albeit with a touch of Nico Muhly organ, woodwinds, and strings (on the album, at least). This is fun, isn't it?


  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about shape note singing. I can help with one thing that puzzles you. You wrote: "...shape notes basically migrated down south and out west at the end of the 18th century..." Change that to 19th century and you'll be right and some other things will fall in place as well.

    I can't quite tell if you are a shape note singer yourself. Just in case you don't know, there is an active group of singers in Brooklyn and there is at least one active composer of shape note songs who goes to that singing. Ii am sure he would be happy to talk about what goes into writing this kind of music.

    Thank you for pointing out that there is a large and vital group of singers in the 21st century! If you haven't been singing yet yourself, I hope you get to do so soon!

  2. Thanks! Yes I have been singing (in North Carolina), and I'm 100% aware of the huge community of singing going on today. But I'm still a bit confused about this Brooklyn 1820s thing -- the narrative I've read again has a kind of *peak* of shape notes in New England around 1790s, and then the rise of Lowell Mason and his ilk gradually pushing it out west and down south in the early 19th century. And the revivalists bringing it back to the Northeast in the middle of the 20th century?

    1. Nevermind! My chronology is totally wonky, Better Music is circa mid 19th century.

  3. Wow, Sam Amidon really sounds like his Dad :-)