GROTON — Along the hills of Groton’s Hillbrook Orchard, the sounds of our colonial roots took hold as local people participated in a “shape note” sing during the recent Civil War re-enactment. What started as a small collection of curious people soon snowballed into a chorus of voices.
Shape note singing was extremely popular in New England in the 1800s as an accessible way for the masses to produce more complex harmonic pieces. An a cappella method of singing, (meaning sung without instruments other than voices and sometimes feet), shape note singing — also termed “fa-sol-la” or “Sacred Harp” singing — allowed rural people to incorporate harmony into their hymns without musical training.
As explained by Allison Schofield, the leader for the hour, this music was readily enjoyed during Civil War times by young people. Civil War-era parents were concerned about the levity and social nature of the singing event, apparently believing that hymns should be sung seriously. Hearing this, one local participant asked Schofield, “You mean this was the rock and roll of the day?” which elicited a chuckle from the rest of the crowd.
In modern times, traditional choirs line up in sections to face the audience or congregation. From the time of shape note singing’s invention in Newburyport, Mass., until now, there has been no such distinction between the singers and audience — everyone sings.
As Bill Holt, an experienced Sacred Harp singer from Watertown, Mass., explained, “What moves me at this (kind of musical experience) more than any other is that this is singing with people; not for people.”
So on Saturday, July 14, next to the brown barn at the base of the orchard, people sat in what is called a “hollow square” formation. The altos (all female) sat across the square from the lead singers (both male and female). The all-male basses sat across from the male and female treble singers. In the center, the leader passed out the music.
The sheet music for shape note singing looks like a cross between standard notes on a staff and a geometry lesson. Each note is displayed in one of four shapes: Triangle, rectangle, circle and diamond. These shapes give an added signal as to which note to sing and they indicate that the song may be sung in any key. Rather than the seven musical syllables made popular in “The Sound of Music,” shape note singing uses only four syllables — fa, sol, la and mi. Through the added cues and the ability to move the song into a comfortable key for the congregation, this unique presentation of music was designed for a population which hadn’t time or means for musical training.
Jenna Strizak is an avid shape note singer who happily traveled from Greenfield, Mass., to attend the event. She explained that she came upon Sacred Harp singing with no ability to read music and yet today she anchored the alto section.
“I learned to read music from the shapes,” she explained. “When someone brings standard music to a shape note sing, I am lost. But using this music, I can read through the alto part with only a couple of errors.”
After Schofield explained the shapes, she led the group by simply and clearly drawing the rhythm with her hand — without the flourish used in standard conducting. At her instruction, the group sang through the melody line using the four syllables. She followed the same process in each song for every singing part — the whole group sang the part together, using the syllables instead of the words for ease in memorization. When she deemed the group ready, they sang through the piece with each side of the square singing their own lines.
Often today, in a hymn-singing church, people will quietly and reverently sing out of the book in front of them. As Schofield explained, at a Sacred Harp sing, the goal is to “honestly open up and not hold back” — singing out the notes rather than blending unassumingly into the crowd. There is still a balance to be met between individuality and the collective group, but people are expected to use their full, natural voice.
For Groton resident and participant Pete Jeffrey, the result was very non-judgmental. “Everybody fellowshipped together and just sang praises. There was a feeling of community, where you wouldn’t usually expect to feel that.” His daughter, 13-year-old Elizabeth Jeffrey expounded, “It was kind of old-fashioned, social and not so strict — it was really cool.”
Shofield later explained why she would drive from Chatham, N.Y., for a one-hour event. For her, the sings are all about “sharing across the ages” and being able to “unexpectedly connect with people you might otherwise think you have nothing in common with.”
She travels to the Southern states for larger Sacred Harp sings and loves spending the day with a cross-section of people — from young, city-dwelling Northerners to rural, elderly Southern folk — each of them focused not on performance but on “submitting your will to the collective experience.”
For more information on fa-sol-la or shape note singing, including events in the Boston area, visit www.fasola.org/singings.