Mississippi's African American Shape Note Tradition

By Chiquita Walls

Chiquita Walls is a lifelong singer of Sacred Harp and shape-note gospel music. A graduate of the University of Mississippi, she teaches American history at Rust College in Holly Springs and resides in Oxford. She is author of The African American Shape Note and Vocal Music Singing Convention Directory, a special publication of Mississippi Folklife 27 (1994), available from Mississippi Folklife, Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi, Hill Hall, University, MS 38677. The present article was published in the La-Miss-Ala Shape Note Newsletter (November - December 1999), edited by Regina Glass, and is used with permission.

I attended a singing once, where a man said, "I've been coming to singing all my life—in fact, I started coming nine months before I was born." He went on to say, "So, I've got to love it." That statement sums up the essence of our feelings for Sacred Harp—we love it. It's been a part of our lives for generations.

My earliest recollections of singing are my singing page 53 (Jerusalem) in The Sacred Harp—I liked the way the bass singers rang out on "I'm on my journey home." In 1970 Dr. William Ferris attended the Black Sacred Harp State Singing Convention in Bellefontaine, Mississippi. Dr. Ferris was a faculty member at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. He recorded the convention's activities and took pictures. My mother remembers Dr. Ferris asking the convention to come outside and stand in front of the church for a group portrait. While standing there waiting for the picture, my mother's friend said, "I wonder if we will ever see these." And my mother said, "Sure we will." I was seven years old.

In 1977 the Black Sacred Harp State Convention decided to present the oldest member of the convention, Mr. Elmer Enochs, a plaque for his years of service. Somebody thought it would be nice to have the youngest member of the convention present the plaque and shake Mr. Enoch's hand, so the job was given to me. I was fourteen. Fifteen years later, I presented another plaque to Mr. Elmer's son Aubrey for Mr. Elmer. Not much had changed. We were even in the same church as before. He was still the oldest member in the convention. I was still the youngest. On the other hand, a lot had changed. The convention was only a third of its size in 1977. Many of the singers had either passed away or were in such ill health, they could not attend. My own father had passed in 1989.

After my father's death, I began to see the convention in a different light. I realized that we were fading away, and if we didn't take an initiative and interest in preserving our heritage, the Black Sacred Harp Singing Convention would soon be gone. Although I had received my degree in Southern studies under Ferris's department at the University of Mississippi, I never discussed my involvement with shape note singing.

Shape note singers have been part of the African American community in Mississippi for over a hundred years. This tradition, however, has gone virtually unnoticed by scholars inside and outside the state. With the exception of Joe Dan Boyd's article, "Negro Sacred Harp Songsters in Mississippi," published in the Mississippi Folk Register in 1970, and a short segment of the film They Sing of a Heaven, there has been very little documentation of the African American shape note tradition of Mississippi.

Several reasons, including notation styles, tempo, and mannerisms, have been put forth for the obscurity of the Mississippi Sacred Harp singers. The Black Sacred Harp State Singing Convention uses the do re mi fa sol la ti scale, whereas in other states, the fa sol la fa sol la mi scale is used. The fact that the black Sacred Harp singers of Mississippi transpose the four note scale to seven notes as they sing is a result of their decision to use B.F. White's four-note Sacred Harp songbook published in 1844 with the rudiments outlined in William Walker's seven-note Christian Harmony songbook published in 1866. The consequences of this adapted singing style has made the Black Sacred Harp State Singing Convention one of the most outstanding and exceptional within the shape note genre.

Black and white Mississippi singers prefer the older songs. Both groups have adopted frontier mannerisms to the musical text approximating that of the 1700s and early 1800s. Black Mississippi Sacred Harp singers also use a slower tempo and favor the slower songs. The result has been an inability to interact with Sacred Harp shape note singers in other states as well as a failure to attract other shape note singers outside the Black Sacred Harp singing community within the state.

Unlike the Sacred Harp singings, in which the old songs and old books are used over and over, the seven shape note singing conventions sing from new songbooks published annually. The black seven shape note singers or "year book singers" use the universal scale of do re mi fa sol la ti do. With the exception of a few Mississippi counties on the Alabama border, there is little interaction between the Mississippi singers and those of other areas outside their individual communities. Although many conventions use the same songbooks and favor the same songs, singers are surprised to hear of singing conventions in other areas of the state.

Despite the lack of scholarly attention and outside interaction, black Sacred Harp singers do not feel hampered. The singers take pride in their ability to sing from both shape note traditions, their own "seven note Sacred Harp" tradition as well as the seven note "year book" tradition.

The 1992 Black Sacred Harp State Convention was marked by a special award ceremony which honored several members for their years of service and dedication to the convention. Four memebrs were presented with certificates of appreciation, and three others were honored with plaques for their role as founding and active members of the convention since 1934. Chiquita Willis, as coordinator of the ceremony, reminded the audience that "it was because of the tireless commitment of those being honored that the convention was able to endure," and that the ceremony was "a special tribute to members of the Black Sacred Harp State Convention because it gave long deserved recognition to a group of extraordinary singers who would not be acknowledged otherwise." The decision to honor the singers is an example of the convention's respect for its elderly members and the tradition they represent.

Notwithstanding the age and failing health of the African American shape note singers in Mississippi, each Sunday afternoon a singing class meets at a designated church for a Sacred Harp sing. Fifth Sundays are set aside for the "year book" music. In addition to the afternoon sings, four Sacred Harp conventions established between 1892 and 1922 hold annual convention sings beginning the fourth weekend in July through the fouth weekend in August. Since 1934, these four county conventions, the Pleasant Ridge (Calhoun County), New Home (Chickasaw), West Harmony (Grenada), and Union Grove (Webster and Montgomery) conventions have met together annually on the second weekend in September for a two-day Black Sacred Harp State Singing Convention with "dinner on the grounds." The seven note year book convention members located in varous communities throughout the state and northwestern Alabama also meet on various Sundays and fifth weekends for monthly afternoon sings, and hold annual conventions from March through November.

The conventions are represented by a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, and chaplain. A business committee is appointed by the officers of each convention. Annual conventions were traditionally held over two days. However, due to the health of many of today's participants, the singing time has been reduced to a few hours on Saturday and all day Sunday.

The program format of all the conventions an afternoon sings is basically the same. The chaplain or president calls the members to order and presides over a short devotional service, usually a song and prayer. This is followed by the president or music director calling each singers to come to the front of the group and lead a song. Each person present is given an opportunity to lead a song; often there are requests by both singers and non-singers. The major difference between the annual conventions and the afternoon sings is the serving of dinner and the presentation of committee reports. The memorial committee report eulogizes deceased convention singers. A monetary offering is collected at the annual conventions and afternoon sings.

African American shape note singing has its origins in the American singing school movement which grew out of the Great Awakening of the early 1800s. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, singing school masters traveled from town to town holding singing schools or "institutes" lasting from two weeks to several months. Minutes from the 1913 Pleasant Ridge Colored Singing Convention show that Bill Wandrick was appointed to teach the Institute for that year. Senior members of the Black Sacred Harp State Convention recall attending an institute for two weeks in August each year from 1900 up until the late 1940s to learn the seven shape musical rudiments.

Itinerant singing school teachers, who took their shape note method from New England into Pennsylvania and then into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, taught students the skills of reading a musical staff, singing syllables, singing in harmony, and reading rhythm. Their efforts led to the development of a whole industry of song book publishing, The most popular of the nineteenth-century tunebooks, and one long revered in many southern homes, was B.F. White's Sacred Harp.

When and where the Sacred Harp tradition was introduced to the African American community in Mississippi can only be speculated. Unlike the four shape note singers of the southeast Alabama wiregrass country, who have been documented and trace their origins to the "fasola" white singers of the mid-nineteenth sentury, the Mississippi black Sacred Harp singers can only theorize their beginnings. On the other hand, it is well documented that the year book conventions were established throughout the state in the first half of the twentieth century after James Vaughan of Vaughan Music Company in Nashville and others began publishing and marketing new songs in small paperback books twice a year.

Both Sacred Harp and year book convention members agree that this is the music of their parents and grandparents: shape note singings and conventions are part of their heritage. Many fear that if nothing is done to preserve and document the music, their descendants will know their cultural heritage. A universal complaint among shape note singers is the lack of interest and participation of young people. Efforts to attract younger participants have failed, and convention members fear that they are indeed the last generation of the black "note singing" tradition in the area. Because of this concern, the state convention's business committee recommended that "steps be taken to write a history of the State Convention using interviews with Convention members, old minutes, and other sources."

All members of the convention share the sentiments of Mrs. Tera M. Hardwick, who said, "We owe it to ourselves, our parents, and our children, to do whatever we can to make sure fifty years or one hundred years from now, somebody will know that there used to be a Black Sacred Harp State Convention in north central Mississippi, or it will be like we were never here in the first place."

Chiquita Walls (c.walls@excite.com)
HTML version by Warren Steel (mudws@olemiss.edu)

Copyright © 1999 Chiquita Walls. All rights reserved.

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