Posted March 5, 2019
By Luisa Kay Reyes
Shiloh, Little Hope, Pleasant Hill, China Grove…these are the names of some single room rural churches that are closed for most of the year in Bibb County, Alabama. Yet they comprise an important part of the Sunday social calendar for Christian Harmony singers during the shape-note singing season. As Harvey Dockery explains in his preface to the 2002 edition of The Christian Harmony songbook, “In a day and age where so many troubles and trials are on every hand, we need to sing a song—a song with foundation, strength and guidance.” The dedicated band of Christian Harmony singers who meet in the sanctuaries of these off-the-beaten-path country churches respond to the call by making a presentation to the Lord with participatory passion.
Singers come from a wide variety of denominations. Despite their differences concerning doctrinal issues, these Christian Harmony singers are united in a singular purpose. When David Daniel (influential shape-note singer) offers the blessing, “May God find our offering pleasing,” it is their earnest desire that their songs such as “Twilight Is Falling,” “Angel Band,” and “Traveling On” stir even the souls of those laid to rest in the historical church cemeteries.
While the shape-note musical notation was introduced in late 18th-century England, it was practiced primarily in the Deep South region of the United States. As the rediscovery of this a cappella singing tradition has become more familiar, those rural shape-note singers who can trace their roots to the soil of pre-statehood Bibb County are renowned. Since the revival of shape-note singing, Yale University now hosts an all-day singing every year on the third Sunday in April, in which they invite “singers from the wider shape-note community to sing in the Faculty Room in historic Connecticut Hall, the oldest building on the Yale campus.”
When it comes to shape-notes, there are two main branches of this singing tradition: the seven-note Christian Harmony “Do Re Mi” style and the Sacred Harp “Fa Sol La” four-note system. Alabama’s contribution to both genres has been significant. In the early 1950s, John Deason and O. A. Parris of Alabama realized there was a problem. The books used at Christian Harmony singings were from the 1901 printing of the 1873 edition, which were scarce and in poor condition. These men were eager to remedy this situation, which led them to introduce the Deason-Parris revision in 1958. This new revision was adopted by the Alabama State Convention and the Newton County Convention of Mississippi. Commonly referred to as the “Alabama Book” in singing circles, the Deason-Parris revision has gained wide acceptance in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and other states.
While shape-note singing was initially affiliated with white religious culture, the style crossed racial lines in southeast Alabama as it attracted both black and white participants. African American Judge Jackson (born on March 12, 1883 near Orion in Montgomery County), felt the call to compile a book for the benefit of black singers. Around 1930, with the endorsement of area singing conventions, Jackson compiled a book for the benefit of African American singers. Described by Joe Dan Boyd as “the most creative and talented African American musician to express the depths of his soul by composing songs in four-shape notation,” Jackson successfully published the first edition of The Colored Sacred Harp in 1934 during the Great Depression. This volume included some of his own skillful compositions alongside other well-known tunes of the era.
It is worth noting that while many musicologists struggle to find the sources that influenced Hank Williams’ distinctive sound, his mother sent Hank to shape-note singing school in a little country church outside Georgiana. He stood out from his peers for being able to “sing a song without any music at all” at a young age.
The shape-note singings throughout Alabama feature a midday dinner on the grounds. James T. Farmer distinguishes these dinners from picnics by the fact that “Southern dinners on the grounds are the culmination of people’s passion for food, the drive to preserve our customs and legacies and the yearning to instill these practices in the next generation’s lives.” While the food is typically served at twelve o’clock, it is still referred to as a “dinner” since those are a “celebratory, sacred southern meal. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Easter and Sunday—all may be followed by ‘dinner.’” The traditional food served at the dinner on the grounds element of the country church shape-note singings typically include such hearty fare as fried chicken, barbeque, ham, cucumbers in vinegar, biscuits, deviled eggs, “corn in nearly every fashion,” sweet potato casserole, black eyed peas, green beans, and red velvet cakes. In Bibb County, the coconut cake at China Grove has achieved savory fame among the area Christian Harmony singers.
The practice of singing music to syllables that designate pitch can be traced back to the work of the monk Guido of Arezzo, around 1000 A.D. The pull of tradition in shape-note singings has proven very durable. The square formation used for shape-note singings makes this style of music unique because the dispersed harmony makes the notes resonate differently from when the songs are played on an instrument. This effect isn’t replicated in regular congregational or hymn singing either. This uniqueness in style inspires Christian Harmony music committee member Jeff James to continue promoting the Christian Harmony singing tradition. Over the years, the soul stirring harmony tradition has “brought a lot of people to tears.”
Boyd, Joe Dan. Judge Jackson and the Colored Sacred Harp. Montgomery, AL: Alabama Folklife Association, 2002.
Escott, Colin and Kira Florita. Hank Williams: Snapshots from the Lost Highway. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2001.
Farmer III, James T. Dinner on the Grounds: Southern Suppers and Soirées. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2014.
Hollingsworth, John and Billy Hollingsworth. “Preface.” In The Christian Harmony. Valdosta, GA: The Christian Harmony Music Company, Inc., 2010.
Yale University. “Yale-New Haven Regular Singing.” Accessed March 5, 2019. https://ynhrs.yale.edu/
Luisa Kay Reyes' pieces have been featured in The Raven Chronicles, The Windmill, The Foliate Oak, The Eastern Iowa Review, and other literary magazines. Her essay "Thank You" was the winner of the April 2017 memoir contest of The Dead Mule School Of Southern Literature. Her Christmas poem was a first-place winner in the 16th Annual Stark County District Library Poetry Contest. Additionally, her essay "My Border Crossing" received a Pushcart Prize nomination from Port Yonder Press. Two of her essays have been nominated for the Best of the Net anthology, and one of her essays was featured on The Dirty Spoon radio hour.