In Sweetest Union Join
96th session of the United Sacred Harp Musical Association, Liberty Church, Henagar, Alabama, September 11-12, 1999
Community Music School of Santa Cruz (CM102)
Traditional Musics of Alabama, Volume 2
African American Seven Shapenote Singing
Alabama Center for Traditional Culture (Alabama Traditions 202)

In Sweetest Union Join:

Morning Prayer - Tom Owen; Exhortation; Welcome - Linton Ballinger; Bear Creek; The Last Words of Copernicus; Gospel Trumpet; Detroit; Ocean; Showers of Blessing; White; Redemption; Delight; Save, Lord, Or We Perish; Holy Manna; Commentary - Richard DeLong; Sherburne; Saints Bound for Heaven; Harmony; Morning Sun; Mount Pleasant; Announcement - David Ivey; The Hill of Zion; Fillmore; I'm On My Journey Home; King of Peace; Confidence; Travelling Pilgrim; Sardis; The Golden Harp; A Thankful Heart; Logan; I Want To Go To Heaven; Peace And Joy; Stratfield; Present Joys; Jerusalem; Announcement - David Ivey.

Morning Prayer - Louis Hughes, Sr; Canaan's Land; Kelley; Passing Away; Eternal Day; The Better Land; Panting For Heaven; Christian Soldier; Schenectady; Travelling On; Lloyd; Return Again; Primrose; Sabbath Morning; Sawyer's Exit; Memorial Lesson - Marcia Johnson; Ortonville; Bridgewater; The Resurrection Day; A Glad New Song; Liberty; Idumea; Windham; Jasper; Desire For Piety; Arbacoochee; Villulia; I'll Seek His Blessings; Alabama; The Young Convert; Heavenly Port; Parting Hand; Closing Prayer - B J Harris.

Traditional Musics of Alabama Volume 2:
This World Is Not My Home (Iím Just Passing Thru); Getting Ready to Leave this World; Heavenís Jubilee; Just a Little Talk With Jesus; Jesus is the Only One; Welcome - Denise Thompson; I Am Leaving Here; A Brief History of the Central Union Singing Convention - Denise Thompson; Each Moment of Time; Victory in Jesus; Lord, Give Me Just a Little More Time; Somebody Loves Me; Camping in Canaanís Land; Where the Soul of Man Never Dies; Better Get Ready; I Never Shall Forget the Day; Speech advocating for continuance - Bernice Harvey; Farther Along; Shouting On The Hill.

Two contrasting CDs of Shape Note singing, both containing recordings made comparatively recently in Alabama.

In Sweetest Union Join is closest to what most people think of when Shape Note singing is mentioned.  And I must say straight away that there is some fantastically powerful singing on this double Sound Clip  Cover pictureIf youíre a Sacred Harp fan, youíll almost certainly enjoy it; if you donít yet have any Shape Note recordings in your collection, then this would be a very good place to start.  Have a listen to Kelley (sound clip).

The CD publicity and liner notes make great play of the fact that these recordings commemorate the 40th anniversary of the recordings made by Alan Lomax at the 1959 United Sacred Harp Convention held in nearby Fyffe, Alabama.  One suspects that this anniversary means more to observers of the tradition, than to participants in it.  As has been noted elsewhere on this website, Alan Lomaxís name now appears to be a marketable commodity, but the producers of the CD canít really be blamed for using it to promote their products.  In fact they may well be jumping on another recent bandwagon as well - movie soundtracks.  Following on from the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, T Bone Burnett (with the active cooperation of Shape Note enthusiast Tim Eriksen) has now put together the music for a Civil War epic, Cold Mountain.  The Sacred Harp songs featured in that film were recorded at Liberty Church, Henagar, where these recordings were made.  Now Iíve not seen the film, but Iím reliably informed that itís very good, and that the Sacred Harp tracks are used to excellent effect in the movie.  And I imagine that far more people around the world will hear the music in the film, than will ever listen to a CD of Alan Lomax field recordings.  So again, I think weíll forgive the Community Music School of Santa Cruz, 3 years after the CD was released, for taking this opportunity to do a bit of additional publicity.  Of course they might only just have come across Musical Traditions, or they might just be very badly organised Ö

So, to return to the music, what changes have there been in Sacred Harp singing over the last forty years?  Iím glad to say, in terms of power and quality, very little!  If youíve heard the Lomax recordings, or indeed other more modern recordings from Shape Note conventions, youíll know what to expect.  The hymn is announced, and the leader for that song pitches it.  Then around 200 voices sing the piece once through, singing just the names of the shapes fa-so-la-mi.  Then they sing it through with the words - but rarely more than three verses, sometimes only one.  And then itís on to the next number, with a new leader.  Itís relentless, and exhilarating, and these CDs capture the spirit of the event.

As with the commercially released versions of Alan Lomaxís recordings (available on Rounder Records Southern Journey Volumes 9 and 10, also reviewed in these pages) some spoken word items - prayers and commentaries - are included on these CDs.  One of these is an emotional address from Marcia Johnson, dwelling on those whoíve gone before, and ending with a request to sing some 'travelling music'.play Sound Clip  play Sound ClipNow, I canít be sure that the songs which follow this address on the CD actually followed straight on at the Convention; and maybe itís just my imagination; but it really seems to me that the singing goes up a gear at this point.  Listen to these excerpts from Bridgewater (sound clip - left) and Windham (sound clip - right) - phenomenal!

In some ways, things have changed over forty years.  Singers no longer dress in their Sunday best, for instance; and some now travel a considerable distance to attend the Convention.  In fact things were just beginning to change in this latter respect in 1959.  The Convention which Lomax recorded was one of the earliest to be held outside of Atlanta, Georgia (where the United Sacred Harp Musical Association had been founded in 1904) and singers from several different areas of Alabama and Georgia were brought together at Fyffe for the first time.  By 1999 the appeal of Shape Note singing had spread much further afield, and singers came from all over the US.  It is rather pleasing to note, however, that many of the families who participated in the 56th Convention were also represented at the 96th; indeed, more than twenty individuals were present both in 1959 and 1999.

If Sacred Harp singing is going from strength to strength, unfortunately the same can not be said of the other Alabama traditions being reviewed here, as African American Seven Shapenote Singing appears to be in terminal decline.  Which is not to say that there are not some fine - indeed vibrant - performances on this CD.

Now I have to confess that before I encountered this CD I was not aware that the tradition existed, and indeed I appear to have been harbouring several misconceptions regarding Shape Note music in America.  Cover pictureI knew that the Sacred Harp songbook was but one example of a nineteenth century genre which also included such titles as Christian Harmony, Kentucky Harmony, Southern Harmony and so on.  I had assumed however that by the twentieth century Sacred Harp was synonymous with Shape Note; not so!  I also assumed that all Shape Note music used the fa-so-la-mi four-shape system of the Sacred Harp; wrong again.  And, insofar as I had considered the matter at all, I was under the misapprehension that Shape Note was a purely white musical tradition.  But when so many other American musical traditions have experienced a two-way flow between black and white communities, I should have guessed that the same would be true for Shape Note music.  It turns out that there are in fact black Sacred Harp congregations in Alabama and Mississippi at least.  And what we have on this CD are recordings of African-American singers performing Shape Note songs from a variety of songbooks other than the Sacred Harp, and employing seven rather than the usual four shapes.

So what are the origins of this tradition?  At root they are the same as for Sacred Harp singing singing schools, established principally in the Northern States during the eighteenth century, employing the four syllables fa-so-la-mi to denote the eight notes of the major scale.  William Little and William Smithís 1801 publication, Easy Instructor, introduced four differently shaped note-heads to denote these four sounds, and thus was born Shape Note notation.  The idea was that students with little or no formal musical training could more easily learn to read music, and of course this system took off and was adopted by many subsequent publications, including the Sacred Harp.  By 1813 Shape Note singing schools, led by itinerant singing-school masters, had spread to the Southern States.  And while in the North supporters of the Ďbetter schoolí movement decried the use of shape notes, returning to do-re-mi solmization and the use of round note-heads, Shape Note notation continued to be popular in the South.

Even here, however, the four-shape system did not go unchallenged by progressive musical educators, and a rival seven-shape system was developed - employing the familiar do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti sounds, but with each one denoted by a different shaped note-head.  The first publication to employ this new system was Jesse Aikenís Christian Minstrel in 1846.  Aikenís system was also used by William Walker in his popular Christian Harmony (1866), and in the books of newly composed music published from 1874 onwards by the Reubusch-Kieffer Company of Dayton, Virginia.  These songbooks were designed less for use in formal church services, than by special Ďsingingsí and singing conventions where singers got together to try their hand at sight reading the new pieces (the majority of which would have been composed by devotees of and participants in the genre).  Similar gospel songbooks were published by other Southern publishers, including Anthony Johnson Showalter and James D Vaughan, and were a great success - with black as well as white singers.  Gospel quartets were often hired to popularise the songs in these new songbooks, and to sell them to rural singers and churches throughout the South.  Such was the popularity of the Ďnew booksí - containing roughly 75% newly composed songs and 25% older pieces - that publishers produced them annually or even twice-yearly.  The books are still published today, although decreasing numbers at the black Shape Note singings mean that fewer new publications are purchased by these communities.  At the same time, the vast number of books owned by the participants at these singings can pose a problem at some events officials try to limit the number of publications to eight, but the CD insert notes that these rules are usually flouted, and 'one may view songsters hauling one or even two suitcases full of songbooks'.  No mean feat when most of the singers are at least 70 years old.

The first black Seven Shape Note singing convention was the Alabama-Mississippi Singing Convention established in 1887, possibly using Christian Harmony as a songbook.  The five conventions featured on this CD were established between this date and 1935.  In many ways the singings follow the same pattern as Sacred Harp meetings any member who wishes to can lead a song; historically at least, singers perform in a hollow square; and there is a distinct social element to the proceedings, with Ďdinner on the groundsí an important component.  play Sound ClipThere is also the same tradition - sometimes dispensed with - of Ďsinging the shapesí first time through; although because seven shape sounds are being vocalised, not just four, it does sound very different (sound clip - Getting Ready to Leave this World).  (Incidentally, and bizarrely, there are some African-American Shape Note singers in Alabama and Mississippi who sing from the Sacred Harp, but transpose it from four shapes to seven - see for an example).

The earliest recording on this CD is from a 1969 radio broadcast.  play Sound ClipThereís one other from 1972, and the remainder were made between 1995 and 2002.  The number of singers has declined drastically since World War 2, with only older singers remaining, and no new singers swelling the ranks.  But as I stated earlier, the quality of the music certainly doesnít suggest a moribund tradition.  Have a listen to the Thomas Sisters singing This World is not my Home.  [sound clip]

One thing you notice immediately is that this is a black singing tradition - Iím not musicologist enough to describe how or why, but itís unmistakeable.  And you very soon notice that although the music may share common roots with white Sacred Harp traditions, itís a rather different musical form, having more in common with gospel music.  play Sound ClipWhereas in nineteenth century Shape Note music a frequent feature is the use of fuguing passages, here you are more likely to encounter a gospel-style call and response pattern (sound clip - Each Moment of Time).  play Sound ClipThe black Shape Note singers also are more inclined to add extra syncopation to the music, along with hand claps and stomping feet.  And whereas the white Sacred Harp singers reviewed above are certainly not lacking in emotion, you donít get the same sort of openly expressed enthusiasm as on some of these recordings (sound clip - Lord, Give me just a Little More Time).

Most of the tracks here are sung unaccompanied, although a couple have piano accompaniment.  Apparently unaccompanied singing is the most common practice amongst black singing groups in Alabama, while historically white conventions favour the use of piano.  I must say that I find the accapella numbers here far more exciting.

The Alabama Center for Traditional Culture is to be congratulated on producing a thoroughly enjoyable CD, casting light on a little known tradition.  The liner notes are excellent, and if I have to find fault with the production at all, it would only be to say that the bookletís too fat to fit easily back into the CD case once youíve taken it out (actually this is even more of a problem with the booklet for In Sweetest Union Join).  My only other complaint is that now Iíve discovered black Shape Note traditions, Iím just going to have to buy a copy of another of the Centerís CDs, featuring black Sacred Harp singing from Alabama.

You can find out more from the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture website their homepage is already listed in the Links section of this site, but for details of this CD look specifically at:   If you want to try before you buy, you can download the CD liner notes and sample some audio recordings.

Andy Turner - 20.5.04

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