Shape-Note Singing in New York State

by David Warren Steel

This brief article was written for The Encyclopedia of New York State (Syracuse University Press, 2005) but not included in the published book.

Shape notes, an American musical notation, with distinctively shaped note-heads corresponding to musical (sol-fa) syllables, as an aid to learning sacred music taught in singing schools; shape-note singing refers the musical styles and traditions associated with this notation during its 200-year history. The notation first appeared in The Easy Instructor (Philadelphia,1801), by William Little and William Smith. Little and Smith brought out a New York edition in 1802, then sold the book to the Albany publishing firm of Websters and Skinner, who with bookseller and singing-master Daniel Steele (1772-1828) issued nearly thirty editions of the book between 1805 and 1831. The Albany publishers also licensed Utica and Cincinnati editions to supply demand for the book, whose frequent changes in content reflect changing musical tastes. While early editions featured psalm and hymn tunes by New England-born composers, including New York residents Nehemiah Shumway (1761-1843) and Eliakim Doolittle (1772-1850), later editions relied increasingly on European compositions. Other compilers, especially in the Ohio Valley and the South, were quick to adopt the notation made popular in The Easy Instructor, though shape-notes were disdained by "scientific" musical reformers like Thomas Hastings (1784-1872) of Utica and New York, who called them "dunce notes." By the end of the Civil War, shape-notes were confined to the rural South.

After the Civil War, shape-note tunebooks such as The Sacred Harp (1844) formed the basis of a widespread community tradition including singing schools, homecomings ("all-day singings"), and singing conventions. This tradition, documented by George Pullen Jackson in White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (1933), attracted the interest of folk song revivalists outside the South, fascinated by its folk-oriented repertory and its uninhibited tonal quality. Bob Beers (1920-1972) introduced Sacred Harp singing workshops at the Fox Hollow Folk Festival in Petersburg, Rensselaer County (1968-1980), an event which caught on at other festivals in the state. Meanwhile, Alabama native Joe Beasley (1929-1995) began hosting traditional Sacred Harp gatherings at his home in Brooklyn, while encouraging New York singers to visit southern "singings" to experience the tradition at first hand. In 1989, the first New York State Sacred Harp Convention was held in Ithaca, bringing together singers from many regions of the state. As of 2001, some eleven local "classes" gather at least monthly, in locations from Buffalo to Long Island, for recreational singing from The Sacred Harp and other shape-note tunebooks, both traditional and modern.

David Warren Steel

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