The Sacred Harp and Shaped Note Singing

Our cabin fever is soon to break and, as our minds turn to thoughts of spring, these hills are very much alive with the sound of music. Julie Andrews taught us the “Do-Re-Mi” song as children. If we can understand that, we’ve already learned the basics of an Appalachian tradition akin to what was carried by the circuit riding singers and preachers of the early 1800’s. It is known as either sacred harp or shaped note singing where the “harp” is the voice you were given at birth.

Shaped Notation

In shaped note music notation, each interval of the standard musical scale has a different name and shape. It’s easy to memorize the shapes and the intervals they represent which makes old time music more accessible, while its enthusiasts are more agile, able to sing and read music in any key.

The late Quay Smathers was born in 1913, just west of Asheville. He is remembered as a fine example pointing to the lasting legacy of shape note singing. Family and friends recall that Smathers exuded a warmth through his music. One reminisced “It’s as if each note came with a flickering tongue of the Holy Spirit . . .”

This spring, on April 14, 2018, the Quay Smathers Memorial Singing School will hold its third annual gathering in Clyde, North Carolina devoted to carrying on Quay’s work of raising up shaped-note singers. The school teaches using The Christian Harmony songbook. This book, published in 1866, featured additional notation that effectively upgraded the “fa so la” system of four syllables and introduced the seven-syllable “do re mi” system that is used throughout Western North Carolina.

It is for those who long to sing in the traditional style, originally heard throughout the Blue Ridge mountains.
The singing school is taught by leaders in the Blue Ridge style of shaped-note singing. The faculty includes Quay’s daughters as well as his son-in-law. They will be joined by the Christian Harmony Singers. Those who attend will gain a deeper understanding of the sacred harp tradition plus a proficiency in singing shaped-notes as they were originally sung in the Southern Appalachians.

Consider the Source

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When we align our objectives with the Divine will, when we strive for the attainment of a worthy goal, when we begin our work with a well defined plan, and when we have ability to work together with others effectively, we have already achieved the trajectory for success. For we know that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”

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