Shape-Note Singing Schools

The singing school was early America's most important musical institution. It offered a brief course in musical sight reading and choral singing, was taught by a singing master according to traditional methods, and used tunebooks that were printed manuals containing instructions, exercises, and sacred choral music. Singing schools arose from British antecedents around 1700 as part of an effort to reform congregational singing in colonial churches. In New England the movement grew quickly and culminated in the first school of American composers and in the publication of hundreds of sacred tunebooks (1770-1810). Singing schools existed in the South as early as 1710, when they are mentioned in the diary of William Byrd II of Virginia. The movement spread during the 18th century as a pious diversion among affluent planters along the Atlantic Seaboard. After the Revolutionary War, itinerant Yankee singing masters established singing schools in the inland and rural South. Both Andrew Law (1749-1821) of Connecticut and Lucius Chain (1760-1842) of Massachusetts were teaching in Virginia by the 1780s; in 1794 Chapin moved to Kentucky where he taught for 40 years. Singing schools offered young southerners a rare chance to socialize. Even today, many older southerners associate singing schools with their courting days.

The spread of singing schools through the South was aided by the invention of shape or patent notes. The system, first published by William Little and William Smith in The Easy Instructor (Philadelphia, 1801), used four distinctive note heads to indicate the four syllables denoting tones of a musical scale (fa, so, la and mi) then employed in vocal instruction, making unnecessary the pupil's need to learn and memorize key signatures. Denounced by critics as uncouth, the simplified notation caught on in the South and West, where it became standard for sacred-music publication. In 1816 Ananias Davisson (1780-1857) and Joseph Funk (1777-1862), both of Rockingham County, Va., became the first southern singing masters to compile and publish their own tunebooks. By 1860 more than 30 sacred tunebooks, all in shape notes, had been compiled by southerners, although many of these were printed outside the South at Cincinnati or Philadelphia. One of the most popular of these was The Southern Harmony, by William Walker of Spartanburg, S.C.: 600,000 copies were sold between 1835 and the beginning of the Civil War. The Sacred Harp (1844), by Georgia singing masters B.F. White and E.J. King is still in print and is the basis of a flourishing musical tradition in six southern states.

Southern singing masters continued to teach the music of their Yankee predecessors but also introduced "folk hymns," melodies from oral tradition which they harmonized in a native idiom and set to sacred words. Many, including tunes for "Amazing Grace" and "How Firm a Foundation," have remained popular and have become symbols of rural southern religion. Camp meeting and revival songs with new refrains also formed part of the southern tunebook repertoire, especially after 1840. Southern singing masters established organizations such as the Southern Musical Association (1845) and the Chattahoochie Musical Association (1852, still active). These and other state and local conventions provided a forum where established teachers met to sing together, to examine and certify new teachers, and to demonstrate the accomplishments of their classes.

After the Civil War, singing schools and shape notes became increasingly identified with the South, while declining in popularity in other regions. Most teachers switched from the four-shape system to a seven-shape system to keep pace with new teaching methods. Leading singing masters established "normal schools" for the training of teachers. Periodicals such as The Musical Million (Dayton, Va., 1870-1915) helped to link teachers in many areas of the South. Small, cheap collections of music published every year began to supplant the large tunebooks with their fixed repertoire. Although folk hymns and revival songs continued to be published, gospel hymns derived from urban models entered the southern tradition.

In the 20th century, singing schools have declined over most of the region but have survived in a few areas. They seldom last more than two weeks of evening classes and may be as brief as one week. Pupils pay at least a token fee, but few teachers, if any, attempt to make a living as singing masters. Contemporary singing schools fall into three categories: 1) "Tunebook" schools are associated with surviving 19th-century books such as The Sacred Harp or Christian Harmony. These schools preserve much of the 18th-century American repertoire and performance practice. 2) Denominational schools are sponsored by churches, especially by those (Primitive Baptist, Church of Christ) that prohibit instrumental music in their worship. These schools use denominational hymnals, and like their 18th century predecessors, attempt to train skilled sight-readers for congregational singing. 3) Shape-note singing schools are associated with the "little-book" seven-shape gospel repertoire. These schools, often sponsored by local singing conventions or by publishing companies, have declined since mid-century as community "sings" have been replaced by quartet performances. All three types of singing schools are regarded by their adherents as important means of transmitting musical knowledge, skills, and traditions to future generations.

David Warren Steel
University of Mississippi


From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE, edited by William Ferris and Charles Reagan Wilson. Copyright 1989 by the
University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

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