On this warm December day, a most congenial group of people met at the beautiful Mt. Zion Church in Mercer County, Kentucky. This group, the Appalachian Association of Sacred Harp Singers, typically meets once a month in Lexington to sing in an antiqued style of religious singing. Shape note singing was brought from Great Britain and has been kept alive in the Appalachian region. Many of these songs were written in the 1700s and the traditional style of singing them remains practiced still today. This same time every year, several shape note singing groups in Kentucky meet to sing and to have a feast. Even though the past several days Kentucky has been swamped with steady rains, the rain cleared and left the most brilliant blue sky to see. Mt. Zion allowed the group to use their church, which was built in 1839 and was originally where slaves in the area went to church.
Listen to an audio excerpt here @
Shape note singing uses a different style of notation. Instead of all round shaped notes, there are also diamonds, squares, and triangles. There are hundreds of these hymns and they are based off scripts from the Bible or are about nature.
There is a leader for each song who keeps time for the group and sets the pitch. Everyone then hums the pitch to begin. The song is first sung in Fa-Sol-La-Mi. Each shaped note has a different word. A round note = Sol, Diamond = Mi, Triangle = Fa, Square = La. Then the song is sung with the real words. There is definitely a certain sound that this type of singing has. I would say it has a drone like sound, which is also typical of English ballads and folk songs.
After singing, everyone was fed supper of all sorts of stews and confections. The group was most polite and let their guests be served first. Then it was time to get out the fiddles, banjos, and accordions. (My music professor playing the fiddle)
This evening was a nice break from modern living. The church sits on top of the Kentucky Palisades which runs along the Kentucky River. The windows were lined with candles which was pleasant to look at as the brilliant blue sky appeared.