They call it the mystery at the heart of the square. It’s drawn people since colonial times, but the 21st century may be its finest moment yet. Here’s how non-singers make simple shapes on a page transcendent.
Capstone project, Long Form Narrative Nonfiction, Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism (December 2013) — full text available on request
Another name for shape note singing, used interchangeably, comes from the collection of songs that forms the genre’s textual foundation. The Sacred Harp has been in continuous publication since 1844. Most singers today use the 1991 revision. The “sacred harp” refers to the human body, the instrument that produces these sounds.
Singers call it the red book, for its oblong oxblood cover. It contains more than 500 songs, but it’s not the final word on shape note collections. There’s The Missouri Harmony, the green book; Abraham Lincoln is said to have sung from it in his youth. The black book is The Norumbega Harmony, assembled by New England singers, where shape note first took hold in the United States. There’s also the beige or wicker book, The Shenandoah Harmony. As old as all the books are, singers update them from time to time. By popular vote, committees discard the pieces that no one sings anymore and add what new compositions they like.
When the notes come out of the page and into the air, the sound can be shocking. Modern ears are not used to the way Sacred Harp creates harmonies, but they have origins in the Renaissance and beyond. Some call the music lonesome or primitive, the opposite of sweet. Other folk traditions, such as bluegrass or mountain music, can recall that sound. American shape note took root in New England, but it survived in the Appalachian South. There’s a wildness to it, a strident, powerful, manifold quality.
Shape note singers like to call their passion “the heavy metal of folk.” A convention, a large gathering of singers, often in the hundreds, can be as loud as a rock concert. Living room singings can be heard halfway down a city block. Experienced hosts have mastered the art of managing neighbors in apartment buildings, often by encouraging their neighbors to join. You can’t be angry about a party, as the thinking goes, when you’re invited to it.
That’s how Orin Fraser, a Hyde Park journalist and computer consultant, found his way to Sacred Harp. Fraser resembles President Obama — both have the same intense focus — if the president also wore elbow-length dreadlocks, scrubs and plastic flip-flops over socks. He lives in the building next to Rachel Adelstein, 37, who sings tenor joyously, often with her eyes closed. Since she moved in this spring the two have chatted about their interests and passions: for him, hosting salons, for her, ethnomusicology. Fraser also knew that Adelstein was Jewish, which was why, when he heard Christian liturgy through her open window one evening, he found himself both puzzled and curious.
“Eventually I got the story from her,” he says, the morning after another singing in her apartment. “I was just drawn to the music.”
Over and over again, Fraser insists that he has a terrible voice, that he can’t sing, that his knowledge of music is only cerebral. He spent some time in a church choir as a teenager, which was “de rigueur” at the time, and even fronted a band in prep school, though as he tells it, this was only because he couldn’t play an instrument.
Adelstein convinced Fraser to attend the next singing she was hosting. Though he was nervous, about his voice and his inability to read music, he agreed to come. “I think very quickly I decided, ‘Well, you know what, that can be rectified,’” he says. “I can learn.”
The Comfort Station singings in Logan Square are meant for beginners. A few experienced singers have become regulars, grateful to avoid hauling south to Hyde Park on a weeknight, but Rivera-Dundas is very aware of her target audience. The Hyde Park group has been meeting every Thursday night for decades. This means that Fraser’s first shape note singing went something like this: Before 7 p.m., singers filtered in and took their places in the square of seats, altos facing tenors, trebles (sopranos) facing basses. They chatted and caught up while they settled in, but at 7, the books came out of everyone’s ubiquitous canvas totes and someone called the first song.
Shape note singers run though a song twice: once on the syllables, then on the words. The Logan Square singers work through each part, making sure all the sections can read their shapes, understand the repeats and know the words. The very experienced Hyde Park singers wanted to fill their two hours with as many songs as possible, which means that someone, usually treble Ginny Landgraf, interrupted the banter to pitch the tune.
At once, sounds charged headlong into the middle of the room. Limbs became metronomes: shoes thumped the floor and arms sliced the air to keep time. For two or three minutes, the walls, floor and ceiling shook. Then, after a little companionable back-and-forth, the next song was chosen, and the process repeated, again and again until everyone broke for snacks or went home.
This doesn’t daunt Fraser. He’s attended two singings and plans to keep returning, though the musical process is still coming together for him. “I listen to the guy next to me, and I try to get the tune, and then I try to follow the tune,” he says. “The ‘notes on the page’ thing isn’t happening yet.” But he’s found what he first heard through Adelstein’s window—“the ebullience of sound,” as he puts it—and more.
He had originally intended simply to observe the singing, but shape note, fundamentally, requires participation.
“These are people who seem really happy to be here, and part of the conduit of happiness is sharing the singing,” Fraser says. “They want you to experience their secret joy. The shared road is sound.”
His words rang true to me. I also expected to be able to watch shape note singers, to take notes and remain on the outside. But every singing I attended flattened that expectation. Moreover, I wanted to be in the square. As a kid, I played piano and oboe, and had always enjoyed singing, but never had a venue for it, or formal training. I hadn’t sung in groups since Sunday school.
As it turns out, I missed it.
The Comfort Station altos have just fallen apart giggling. Our attempts to hit a high note have collapsed under the simple, giddy pleasure of making a funny, unsuccessful noise. We’re working on our first fuguing tune. All four sections will sing staggered melodies that combine and interact, we are promised, in exciting new ways. With some help from Raymond, at last the altos slowly manage the sequence.
“Are we ready?” Rivera-Dundas asks, though she’s smiling. “Does everyone remember their part?”
Raymond pitches us again, fa-la-SOL-la-fa, and each singer deploys their opening syllable. What happens next is heavenly: a rich, multi-layered sound, gigantic from the inside and full of moving parts. “Let every land their tongues employ,” we chorus, “and hymns of triumph sing.”
“People need to experience the making of music,” says Swanson. “We listen to things all the time. We don’t perform, play, sing, whatever. I think that’s terribly important.”
The making of music together holds a political power for Raymond.
“Having a thing that you’re working on together has a lot of potential to bring people together who wouldn’t normally understand each other,” he says. But there’s also something rebellious about group creations.
“A lot of institutions in the world right now are about consuming,” he says. “Whenever you purchase something, someone made it. There are tons of actors in that process, and you’re the audience for that. You’re receiving that act of production. To become an actor yourself is a really exciting experience. To have that be the norm is a really radical thing to do.”
The idea of just getting together and singing can take some getting used to, says Adelstein. “It’s very hard for people to wrap their heads around the idea that people could just sort of show up and whip it off,” she says. “It doesn’t fit within this rehearse-rehearse-rehearse-perform paradigm.”
Blame the 20th century for separating us into listeners and performers.
“The 20th century was about recording and broadcast, and of removing the sound from the instrument that makes it, and of turning people into audiences,” says Adelstein. A glint enters her eye. “Sometimes I think that shape note is very well suited to the technologies of the 19th century and of the 21st century—and of the 20th century, not so much.”
She spreads her hands. “What is the technology of the 21st century about? It’s about social media, it’s about participation, it’s about connecting people. If it’s a technology that’s designed to facilitate people getting together to do something, shape note is really good at that.”
Her observations bear out. Shape note singing is very difficult to record well. Any microphone positioned where the sound converges, at the heart of the hollow square, stands likely to be knocked over by the song leader. Equipment positioned out of the way delivers an odd, anemic recording, completely devoid of the power of the experience. As for social media, news of old-time singings would have spread by word of mouth; the Logan Square singings rely on MeetUp.com for organization and outreach.
Some have theories about why Sacred Harp has caught on in cities, when the tradition is so strongly tied to rural areas. “I think a lot of people in cities are searching for a community that they feel comfortable being themselves in that’s not about work, your work life or something like that,” Raymond offers.
That may be a learned condition to overcome, though, rather than a natural one. Fraser spent the first nine years of his life in Guyana before moving with his family to Brooklyn. “I’m from a small village in a small country no one’s ever heard of, and I’ve never left,” he says. “I’m someone who says hello to strangers because I have a villager’s perspective that the world is familiar. Living organically for me is an expectation. I don’t expect the world to be unfamiliar.”