Dedicated group keeps shape-note singing alive
Greg Garrison, Religion News Service
September 30, 2010

Dedicated group keeps shape-note singing alive

Dedicated group keeps shape-note singing alive
Greg Garrison, Religion News Service
September 30, 2010


archaic sounds that fill the historic former church sanctuary echo, hauntingly,

like a whispering ghost from the past.

Inside the 1902 building

that once housed the Second Presbyterian Church, the elaborate archways bounce

back the sound of sacred harp singing.

It’s a style of music that

once dominated rural evangelical religion, in the days before the Civil War and

church organs, when a capella singing was the norm. It’s never entirely died

out, in part because of people like Tim Cook.

“It was once common

throughout the South,” said Cook, a shape-note singing aficionado who brought

his lessons to the former church that’s now part of the University of Alabama

at Birmingham campus.

Cook’s group of more than a

dozen interested singers sat facing Cook as the song leader, holding wide-page

hymnbooks filled with notes in the shapes of open and solid squares, diamonds,

triangles and ovals.

RNS photo by Mark Almond/The Birmingham News

Tim Cook leads a class for shape-note, or Sacred Harp, singing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The ancient music is based on different shaped notes and is sung a cappella.

Throughout the 1800s, the

mournful harmonious sounds of a capella shape-note singing reverberated in

churches throughout the South. It’s now experiencing a renaissance of sorts in

Sacred Harp songbooks and conventions. But while Sacred Harp singing has

surged, the slightly more complicated seven-shape-note Alabama Christian

Harmony singing still struggles to stay alive.

“We certainly don’t want it

to die out,” said Emily Creel Burleson, Ala., who carries on her family’s

generations-long love affair with the music. “We do it to promote the heritage

and tradition of the music.”

The Internet has helped

create a revival for shape-note singing, connecting singers and bringing them

together for events across the country.

Cook says having the notes

in different shapes makes it easier to read and sing the music in four-part


Participants sing the actual

note sounds first: “fa” for triangle shape notes, “sol” for oval, “la” for

square and “mi” for diamond-shape notes, instead of the lyrics. That’s just a

tradition. Then they sing it with the lyrics.

The combination of archaic harmonies

and old-style lyrics can be jolting to outsiders. To others, it’s addictive.

Many of the shape-note songs were written by English composers such as Isaac

Watts and Charles Wesley, set to old English dance tunes and carried from

churches in rural England by colonial settlers.

The tradition was carried to

the South, where many churches continued the shape-note a capella singing of

the hymns with complex harmonies. The songs may have archaic, cryptic names

such as “Old Hundred,” better known in many hymnbooks as the doxology; “Amazing

Grace” appears in shape-note books as “New Britain.”

When pianos and organs

became common in churches, a capella singing began to disappear, along with the

complicated harmonies in the old hymnbooks.

Cook took up shape-note

singing after moving from Michigan to Atlanta in 1995, and now teaches it and

leads singings.

“I’ve always like to sing a

capella, four-part harmony,” Cook said. “When I heard this the first time, I


That is the voice of heaven.’”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Garrison

writes for The Birmingham News in Birmingham, Ala.)