Moving a Tradition:  why bother… and what is it, anyway?


During the Memorial Lesson at the 2nd Annual Maquoketa River All-Day Singing, Cathryn Baker pointed out that we, here in Iowa, are missing the usual "cloud of witnesses" who have gone on before to lead us in the traditions that usually enfold a Sacred Harp singing.


Compared to the Chattahoochee Convention, which celebrated its sesquicentennial in 2002 – or the Lookout Mountain Convention, which turns 100 this year – the Maquoketa River Singing is a mere infant.  While those older singings can trace their roots back through generations and families, through war and peace, through good times and grinding depression – the things that create a community of continuity and shared history – the Maquoketa is a blank slate.  We've only just begun.


I'm not sure if shape note singing was ever a traditional music form in Iowa.  I don't see any reason to disbelieve that it was:  the folks who settled this area came at a time when shape note singing was wide-spread in the rest of the country, and they surely brought it with them.  And if I scoured enough church records, I'm sure I would find proof that congregations sang their fa-so-la's here, just as they did elsewhere.


And even if they didn't sing in church, they undoubtedly sang on their front porches, in the taverns, or out working in the fields – just like everybody else in this country did before radio and TV came along.  What did they sing?  They sang the popular songs of the day; the sang the old favorites their grandparents taught them; and they probably sang songs from the Sacred Harp or the other shape note hymnals that blanketed the country during the middle of the 19th century.


So, there is surely an historical precedence for singing the notes in Iowa.  But why bother bringing it back, replanting seeds of a tree that died out a long time ago in this neck of the musical woods?  And what does it take to tend and cultivate a transplant of this kind?


Partly, I didn't want to have to travel so far all the time to sing, pure and simple.  More than that, however, I wanted to introduce other Iowans to the joys of singing, to share with them the very special and powerful sense of community, the fellowship, that develops in a singing.  I wanted them to know what it's like to be makers of music, not just consumers of what other people record – people they'll never meet or sit next to on the bench, never eat dinner with or shake hands with at the end of a long and wonderful day.  How much better, to do all those things with live humans!


For those who have never experienced a live shape note singing – who don’t know the traditions associated with a singing – what they hear at a singing (or on these webpages) must be confusing and sound a great deal like noise at times.  So, here’s a quick run-down on what happens at a singing.


An all-day singing lasts one day; a convention lasts two days.  Either might include election of officers, drafting of resolutions, and other actions.  In many areas, particularly in the South and in urban parts of the North, folks get together every month to sing, although those singings are much more informal.  And some churches (and families) sing from the Sacred Harp or some other shape note hymnal as a normal part of their worship and everyday existence.  It’s just part of who they are.


The Maquoketa River All-Day Singing is a one-day event that happens once a year.  Because it’s a very new singing, we don’t have a large community of local singers, so we rely on (and welcome with open hearts) singers from other areas to join their voices with ours.  And because we are a new singing, we are not structured like older and larger communities of singers.  I do the vast majority of the organizing and marketing, and then other folks step up on the day of the singing and take on a variety of tasks.  As we grow, that system will change and develop into something like the other singings use. 


The general sequence of events at an all-day singing runs something like this:

Ø      Singers arrive, greet old friends, fill out a registration card (on which they mark whether they want to lead), and find a seat in the section where they sing.  Each voice sits together as a group, one on each side of a “hollow square”, facing the middle.  Tenors sit with their backs to the door, and altos face them across the square.  Basses sit to the tenor’s left side, facing the trebles.  Both men and women may sing any of the four parts, although Alto is usually sung only by women and Bass by men.  The mixing of men and women in a part can lead to more than four parts singing, as each sings in their own appropriate octave. 

Ø      The Chair greets the singers, and the Chaplain offers an opening prayer.

Ø      The Arranging Committee starts calling leaders from among those who indicated a wish to lead – this is an art form, calling up the leaders in such as way as to keep the singing moving along with maximum energy, while making sure that everybody who wants to gets a chance to lead.  The singers form a “class”, and the songs they sing are “lessons”.

Ø      Leaders walk into the middle of the square, give the number of the song they will lead; someone gives a pitch for the song; the singers sound the chord created by the pitch; the leader faces the tenors, raises a hand to beat the time and signal the beginning of the song (which is why so many pictures show people in the middle of the square with their hand raised and their mouth opened), and off they go.

Ø      The first time through the song, the singers “sing the notes” – the “fa”, “sol”, “la”, and “mi” shapes that give shape note music its name.  (Visit the “fasola” website for more information.)  This music notation system allows singers to focus on the intervals between the tones, rather than specific notes of a scale, and simplifies learning a new song.  (And the “movable pitch”, which you hear at the start of each song, allows the songs to be sung in a range that is comfortable for the majority of singers at that singing.)  Each part has its own pattern of shapes, which is why the first time through the song can sound very chaotic.  But that first time allows everyone to run through their parts before they sing the words.  You might notice, when you listen to the Maquoketa River files, that the “singing of the notes” is much rougher than the singing of the words.  That’s exactly why we sing the notes:  to give ourselves that practice session before singing the texts.


Ø      Every hour or so, the Chair calls for a short break so folks can get a drink and stretch their legs.

Ø      At some point during the day, the Chair will also ask the Memorial Lesson Committee to step forward, say a few words, read the list of deceased singers from the past year, and then lead a song.  Then someone else will say a few words about the Sick and Shut-In and read a list of those names and lead a song for them.

Ø      Before the dinner break, the Chaplain will offer a prayer of blessing and thanksgiving.


And then it’s time for Dinner on the Ground!  My observation is that shape note singing is mostly a matter of something coming out a singer’s mouth (song and conversation) or something going in (food).  It’s a wonderful system. 


The term “dinner on the ground” originally meant a picnic, a potluck meal supplied by all who could, for all who were there to eat.  And because folks might have traveled a long distance to a church with pretty primitive facilities, everybody spread out blankets and ate ”on the ground”.  Today, we stand around or sit on folding chairs (and sometimes even eat at tables in church basements), but Dinner on the Ground is a treasured part of the tradition. 


Ø      After an hour for dinner, someone calls the class back to order by launching into a song, and everyone heads back for the afternoon session.

Ø      The morning’s sequence is repeated – sing for an hour, break for a few minutes.

Ø      And, all too soon, the singing is over and it is time to go home.  Or to someone’s house for a Social (with more singing and supper).


Shape note singing is a community effort.  We literally turn our backs on the world and face each other when we sing.  If other folks wander in to listen, that’s fine, but most singers probably won’t even realize that they’re there.  We sing to and for each other, not for an audience.


In doing so, we create and extend our own traditions, holding hands with those who have gone before and those who will follow.  This was only our second year, but next year at least a few folks might wonder if Martha will return again and lead 269 with such grace, speed, and fervor… whether Kristin will bring her fabulous peach punch or lemon chiffon pie… which of the Moore children will follow in their father’s footsteps and  join the singing….  From pieces such as these, traditions are built.


And that’s why we put together the Maquoketa River All-Day Singing:  to nurture a tradition that supports and deepens community, to share great fellowship with some truly fine folks, and to eat from the table of the Lord in many ways.


* * * * *


Here are some great resources that will tell you more (and better) than I ever can about the traditions of shape note singing.


There are a number of websites devoted to the history and practice of shape note singing.  The single best source of information and links is – and from there you can get to a myriad of other sites.


We are blessed to have so many great researchers and writers who care so very much about this music, its history, and its people.  The following books each contribute information and a perspective to the appreciation and understanding of the Sacred Harp, its traditions, and the people who love them both:


Ø      The Sacred Harp:  A Tradition and Its Music, by Buell Cobb (University of Georgia Press, 1978)

Ø      Public Worship, Private Faith:  Sacred Harp and American Folksong by John Bealle (University of Georgia Press, 1997)

Ø      The Chattahochee Musical Convention, 1852-2002:  A Sacred Harp Historical Sourcebook, edited by Kiri Miller (The Sacred Harp Museum, 2002)