23 April 2012

All-Day Singing and Lunch on the Ground

Young and old alike were singing lustily at the All-Day Singing I recently attended with a friend. It was raucous, moving, uplifting, and something I need to do more often. 

Shape-Note singing (which is non-demoninational) is nearly as old as our country, and was a method devised for those who could not read music. Four shapes (triangle, empty circle, diamond and square) and four tones (mi fa sol la) were all you needed to be able to follow along in four part harmony.  The four voices (altos, tenors, sopranos, basses) sit as individual sections around a hollow square while a leader stands in the center of the hollow, sawing his or her arm up and down to keep the rhythm. (And to get everyone 'on the same page' literally as well as figuratively, the tune is generally sung without words one time through.)

A tune book for Shape Note singing—the "Sacred Harp"—was compiled in 1844. There are many versions but the 1991 is the one most often used today...

...unless you're lucky enough to own an old family copy that was handed down,
like this one.

 If you saw "Cold Mountain" then you've heard Shape Note singing during the scene in Ada's church. It's a beautiful sound, nearly impossible to describe and which sadly does not always translate well on recordings.  (Or as my friend said to me afterwards, "You really had to be there.")  

And while Lunch on the Ground may sound like a paper plate mishap at a picnic, it refers to the traditional pot-luck suppers that Church communities or Sacred Harp societies would sponsor on the grounds of their Churches. Many of the time honored recipes served at these gatherings were compiled into "dinner on the grounds" cookbooks.  I was lucky enough to find this one at a book sale once.

[Images are from the documentary "Awake my soul", the Shape-Note Singing site at the University of Chicago, and the Special Collections at Appalachian State University]

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