Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Secular Music in Shape Notes, by David Warren Steel

As anyone can tell from my first post, I think shape notes are a gift to humanity and shouldn’t be limited to just tunebooks of niche communities and hymnals of small denominations. So when I read on the fasola-discussions email listserv that Warren Steel had a chapter called “Secular Music in Shape Notes” in a new book called Rethinking American Music, I naturally wanted to read it. Not patient enough to wait for it to come by interlibrary loan or even just regular shipping, I just went ahead and bought the electronic version and read it. Warren is a shape-note singer, which is how I know him, but he’s also an academic on the subject, professor emeritus of music at Ole Miss, which basically means he figured out how to get paid for doing what he would be doing anyway. If there’s anyone who would know about shape notes, it would be him. I think I laid undue expectations on him and this chapter because I was imagining a shape-note version of all the great songs of the 19th and early 20th century in unaccompanied four-part harmony, the type of songs people used to sing together before they started letting professional entertainers sing in their stead. What he found was indeed fascinating, but a lot more modest, and not even entirely secular.

Actually, a lot of the great songs of the 19th and early 20th century are religious songs, great because they were written for groups to sing, and the one place people would find themselves in a group was at church. But there was a lot of other music then that was also moving, you could even say spiritual, at least in a group setting, but not intended for church. Take for example Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” with its profound empathy for the poor, or “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms” to the words of the Irish poet Thomas Moore, about love living beyond youthful beauty: “As the sun-flower turns on her god, when he sets, The same look which she turn’d when he rose!” The beauty and the poignancy of those songs are multiplied when sung in parts. Was anything like that ever written in shape notes? I was interested in any such music I could get my hands on.

Out of the secular sources Warren cited, two are available online. One is Amos Sutton Hayden’s The Sacred Melodeon (1849). In fact I came across this one some time ago and downloaded it then. As Warren explains, Hayden was a Disciples preacher who had this idea that if you invoke God (“the Author of his being” and “the Most High” as Hayden says) while you’re learning to sing, you’re taking “his sacred name in vain” because you don’t know how to sing the song right yet when you’re just learning it. Or something like that. So this collection, and another of Hayden’s tunebooks called Introduction to Sacred Music, despite the word “sacred” in the titles, usually avoided saying “God” and “Jesus” outright. A lot of the songs are ones familiar to Sacred Harp and Christian Harmony singers, which too use a lot of language like “Author” and “the Most High,” but Hayden did so even more. So, for example, where “Exhortation (First)” in The Sacred Harp says “Up to the hills where Christ is gone To plead for all His saints,” the same song in The Sacred Melodeon goes “The world, at each returning day, Awakes again to light.”

Changes like that let you sing Sacred Harp in a secular setting, but Sacred Harp itself is often sung in secular settings with people of various religious commitments or lack thereof joining in. I don’t imagine there would be many people that say they really want to sing the music except they can’t bring themselves to sing “God” or “Jesus” (although we once had an interested Jewish student show up at a singing where someone called for Stafford to be sung, with its line “in spite of env’ous Jews.” In good faith he asked me what that meant and I didn’t really have a good excuse. He never came back. Kind of broke my heart.) A lot of the other music that Warren found was also this kind of secularizing of religious shape-note songs, some of which were written to secular texts in the first place, but not texts that were put back into the resecularized versions. And some of the music, written for Freemasons, had a lofty spiritual tone appropriate for Masonic ceremonies, but not overtly religious.

The other work Warren mentioned that’s available online is The Juvenile Harmony (1852), compiled and published by Thomas R. Weber. Neither is this one really secular, it’s just that there are a lot of secular songs in it. A weird feature of this book that Warren mentioned (he didn’t say “weird” though) is that while the songs are written in four shapes, the same four we know, some of the songs—and just some—have the seven solfège syllables printed where the words go, with the words themselves placed under the song. I wonder if Mr. Weber didn’t know about seven shapes. Or perhaps he thought his audience didn’t know them, but if they had both a feel for doremi and the concept of shape notes, you’d think they would’ve known doremi shape notes. Maybe a testament to the power of fasola at the time. Some of the songs are nice, but they’re mostly, well, juvenile. They would have been great for teaching kids, though, if the publisher could have decided which shapes to use.

It’s still a mystery to me why shape notes didn’t catch on, in the whole wide world, but especially in America where they were invented. A long time ago, Warren kindly picked me from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to go singing in Alpharetta, Georgia, so I had about four privileged hours to pick his brain. I asked him why they don’t teach shape notes in public school and he basically said that in the early 1800s, there was a war between shape notes and round notes and round notes won. I later read up a little about all that and it seems that the main culprit was the father of music education himself, Lowell Mason. Apparently his camp was opposed specifically to four-shape shape notes, which not only did he totally not get, he wanted to elevate Americans out of the backwoods culture where shape notes came. I think seven shapes would have been compatible with his teaching philosophy if he wouldn’t have been so prejudiced. The legacy of all that is that, no matter how much pedagogical sense shape notes make, music teachers won’t teach them because there isn’t any music written in them and there isn’t any music written in shape notes because music teachers won’t teach them.

None of the books that Warren talked about ever attained the popularity of religious shape-note books. As he says, when people in the 1800s sang secular songs from books, they preferred books without any notes at all. Maybe the whole idea of any musical notation reminded them of church, the image of which isn’t helpful when you’re trying to sing a drinking song. The harmony may have reminded them of church too. (I’m making all this up, it isn’t Warren.) But then at church, pianos and organs eventually started becoming more attractive than the harmony of unaccompanied singing. In any case, wherever churches dropped shape notes, there the whole ingenious idea died.

Singing without notes lives on today in the community singing movement where people gather to sing folk songs. There’s such a group in Birmingham, Alabama, and when I lived there, I went a few times, but it proved to be too frustrating. They use the popular Rise Up Singing group singing songbook, in which the only notation is guitar chords, as if the guitarist is the only one who actually needs to know the song. Most people just sang along with the melody, with some trying to wing an alto or bass line, but all I could think was “Show me the damn notes.” Even so, if singing can help random people become a community, that’s pretty much always a good thing. As The New York Times quoted Pete Seeger, “No one can prove a damn thing, but I think that singing together gives people some kind of a holy feeling. And it can happen whether they’re atheists, or whoever. You feel like, ‘Gee, we’re all together.’” I call that holy.

Have you ever been in some mundane situation when suddenly you hear a cappella harmony coming from somewhere, maybe from the radio, maybe from a choir rehearsing, maybe just a pick-up singing in another room? Everyone freezes like a spirit wafted in or something. “That’s lovely,” people will say. But then they’ll just go right back to their mundane pursuits. My problem is I can’t go back. It’s like I’ve heard the Sirens and jumped into the water, except that the water’s exquisite. “Jump!” I want to say to everyone else, whether we’re in church, on the street, in a stadium, on a bus, wherever there are people, because I can’t make harmony by myself. If we had more secular songs in shape notes, I think more people would jump. Scenes from Heaven on Earth, which I am trying to foster with secular music in shape notes.

All in all, Warren’s chapter was for me very educational, a little depressing, and helpful for understanding my task ahead. For anyone who needs the full citation, here it is:
Steel, David Warren. “Secular Music in Shape Notes.” Rethinking American Music, edited by Tara Browner and Thomas L. Riis, University of Illinois Press, 2019, pp. 50-67.


  1. But of course there *is* music written in shape notes, and more coming out all the time, and if all that matters is the shapes then computers are now equipped to transform virtually all round-note music into shape notes at the press of a button.

    1. Ros' Haruo, thanks for your reply. You don't mean there's more secular music coming out in shape notes, do you? Of course there's more religious music, which is wonderful, but my ulterior motive is to get to a place where music teachers can't refuse to teach shape notes on the grounds that there's nothing appropriate to teach kids in school. I read some other blog where a guy wrote "how solfeggio saved my life." It's not entirely hyperbole to say shape notes saved mine because I didn't have any confidence to sing before that, and I certainly couldn't sight-sing. At least you could say that I found my voice through shape notes, and I think a whole lot of other people could too if they were introduced to them.