The fact that someone on an Internet shape-note singing discussion group recently invoked H.L. Mencken's description of the music's sound as a "a cross between a steam calliope and a Ukrainian peasant chorus" doesn't bother Laura Akerman at all. Akerman, a senior cataloguing specialist in Woodruff Library, believes that characterization can even be taken as a compliment.
Akerman describes shape-note singing as a way of understanding pitch relationships using the notes of the scale, namely fa, sol, la and mi. In music books used for shape-note singing, the various notes are printed in different shapes, thus allowing people with no access to pianos or other musical instruments to learn and perform their own style of music.
Shape-note singing has a full, powerful sound with rough, almost primitive overtones. "The musical values of shape-note singing are different from what most of us are used to today, especially the way it's done in the South," Akerman explained. "People sing loud, forcefully, rhythmically, and they don't pull any punches. Some of the harmonies are not really pretty; they're kind of sharp. The texts of the hymns are sometimes pretty sharp too. There are lots of songs about death, dying and sin. There are also many glorious songs about joy and peace and angels and so forth, but there are plenty of songs with a pretty grim message."
Akerman sees those grim messages as a predictable product of the American Revolutionary War era, when times were hard for most of the population, which in turn sought a strong religious foundation to sustain themselves. "In those early days," she explained, "they had singer masters who would travel from community to community and teach singing by the shape-note system so that people could learn the songs without having instruments."
Although shape-note singing began in New England, it was almost entirely concentrated in the South when Akerman began singing 20 years ago. "Part of that tradition in the South is that churches or groups of people have annual singings, often in very rural churches," she said. "The texts of the hymns are Christian, but not denominational. I think the original authors were hoping to have the music accepted by churches of different faiths as the church hymnbook. It didn't quite work out that way, but there is this tradition."
For Akerman, appreciating that rich tradition began nearly 20 years ago when several members of a local theater group she worked with were invited to hear shape-note singing at a rural Georgia church. "I didn't go to that first singing out in the country," Akerman said. "But a lot of people came back and said, `Oh, you've got to hear this. You've never heard anything like this before.'"
Akerman describes her first shape-note singing experience in almost mystical terms. "It was at this little country church that's very hard to find," she said. "We got out of the car and started walking toward the building. And there was this sound like a hive of bees buzzing. You could almost feel the air vibrating, as if this little wooden church was going to rise up into the air. When you get a whole roomful of shape-note singers together, it's just that strong."
Inspired by that initial experience, Akerman eventually returned to try her hand at singing with a group that uses The Sacred Harp, a book of shape-note songs well known in the community. "The people in The Sacred Harp community were very welcoming," Akerman recalled. "They kind of take you under their wing and point to the place on the page where you're supposed to be if you get lost." She said shape-note singings are actually not performances at all. The singers sit in a hollow square with each of the four parts (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) facing each other and basically singing for each other. While there are often listeners in the room, Akerman said the singers are "really singing to create the sound in the middle of the room."
The hollow-square format didn't work for Akerman and her 25 or so fellow shape-note singers in July when they sang at the Centennial Olympic Park. She said it was really more of a demonstration than a performance. "People would come and sit for a little while and listen, and then move on, because the weather was just too hot," she said. "It was pretty warm that day, but that's nothing for Sacred Harp singers. Most of the churches we sing in aren't air conditioned. You go in with your little hand-held fan and hope that there's a ceiling fan."
Even though one of the group's two scheduled singing times was canceled after an explosion closed the park, Akerman was still glad the group was able to perform once, so that at least some of the Olympic visitors were able to hear a style of singing they probably had never heard before.
Akerman also wants to do more shape-note singing than the four to five times per year that has been her custom, partially because the music has come to mean so much to her.
"I got into shape-note singing because I enjoy the music," she said. "It wasn't at all a religious thing for me at the time, but I think I've gotten a lot out of singing those songs. There have been times in my life when one of those songs would come to me and really mean something to me."
Editor's note: More information on shape-note singing is available in the book The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music. The shape-note homepage on the web can be accessed at <medinfo.labmed.umn.edu/Docs/.www/fasola_homepage.html>.