Shape-note singing has deep roots in Appalachia and the American south. Popular first in 18th and 19th-century New England, shape-note singing is a tradition that relies on group participation. But what happens when groups can’t get together and sing? In a special report exploring folkways traditions, as part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Project, Kelley Libby spoke with singers in Virginia and Kentucky.
“One of the beautiful things about shape-note singing is it has a capacity to hold the full range of human emotion,” said Chris Wolf, a teacher and singer from Check, Virginia. “And it’s often a balm in trying times. So it feels especially cruel that we can’t sing together now.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, shape-note singers—who regularly gather indoors, in groups—are practicing social distancing. Prevention of the spread of COVID-19 means avoiding singing with a large group of people in an enclosed room.
What Is Shape-Note Singing?
Shape-note singing, also known as Sacred Harp, is an early American a cappella, religious singing tradition that depends on four-part harmony.
“The vocal style is unadorned and unpolished,” Wolf said. “The harmonic qualities of the music are striking, there’s a lot of resonant chords that sound old.”
Singers regularly gather in their home communities for what are traditionally known as “singing schools”—opportunities for beginners to learn the singing methods and for long-time singers to practice. They also gather for annual all-day “singing conventions,” which can draw more than 100 people, some from other states and abroad. These include a potluck dinner and a day of singing from tunebooks like The Sacred Harp and The Shenandoah Harmony.