Sacred Harp Singing in New York State

New York State Map

Sacred Harp singing is alive and well in New York State! With active local groups from the New York City metropolitan area to the Niagara Frontier, the sounds of Fasola singing can be heard practically every weekend somewhere in the state.

The purpose of this web site will be to inform you of where and when Sacred Harp singing in New York State will be taking place, as well as to introduce Sacred Harp singing to a wider audience.


Contents

What is Shape Note Singing?
What is The Sacred Harp?
Where can I go to hear Sacred Harp singing?
Where and when do local groups meet?
How can I learn more about Sacred Harp singing?


What is Shape Note Singing?

Shape note singing is a type of traditional American singing with roots extending back to the colonial period of American history, and even beyond.

Religious music in the American colonies consisted mainly of psalm singing. Reports of that time decried the way music was performed, and reformers attempted various ways of improving congregational singing.

In the 1790s, Philadelphia shopkeeper John Connelly devised an ingenious method of notating music through the use of "shape notes." The scale syllables then in use reflected the English roots of the new nation. The musical scale was sung to the syllables "fa sol la fa sol la mi fa", not the "do re mi" syllables we use today. Connelly assigned a triangular shaped note head to "fa", a round head to "sol", a square head to "la", and a diamond head to "mi". In 1798, he gave permission for William Little and William Smith to use these four shapes in their tunebook, The Easy Instructor. Through the use of the shape note system in The Easy Instructor, many of our early American ancestors learned to sight read vocal music. Here is an example of shape note notation. The melody is in the tenor part.

New Britain

A number of early American composers had a connection with New York State, including Stephen Jenks, Nehemiah Shumway, Truman Wetmore, Elisha West, Lewis Edson, Eliakim Doolittle and Hezekiah Moors, all of whom lived at one time in New York. The Easy Instructor, beginning with its second edition in 1802, was printed in New York, and later editions were printed in Albany, the last one in 1831. Several tunes in early shape note books are named after locations in New York, including Newburgh, North Salem, Ballstown, Whitestown, New Lebanon, and Schenectady.

Click here to see a copy of the cover of The Easy Instructor (100 K), courtesy of Laura Densmore.

As America became increasingly urbanized, a movement for the use of more "cultured" European music in churches gained popularity. Shape note music was pushed out of the cities into more rural areas, and eventually took root in the mountainous regions of the southeastern states, particularly Georgia and Alabama, where it remained relatively unnoticed by the rest of the musical world until the 1930's. Since then, shape note singing has once again been reaching into the north and midwest, and continues to grow throughout the United States as well as abroad.

What is The Sacred Harp?

The Sacred Harp is a four-shape tune book compiled in 1844 by Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King. One of many shape note tune books published in the South before the Civil War, it has become the most popular tune book used in contemporary shape note singing. The whole genre of shape note singing is often, though incorrectly, referred to as Sacred Harp singing.

One reason for the longevity of The Sacred Harp is the fact that it was enlarged and revised several times during the lifetime of its compilers, and, unlike most other tune books, continued to be revised even after their deaths. The most recent revision (1991) added 65 songs, many by contemporary authors, including four songs by former Cazenovia, NY resident P. Dan Brittain.

Sacred Harp singing is performed without any instrumental accompaniment. (The term Harp in the title of the work is an old term for a hymnal.) Seating is arranged around four sides of a hollow square. Everyone present has the opportunity to both choose and lead a song. A unique facet of shape note singing is that before singing the words to the song, it is first vocalized by singing it through using the shape names. Leaders stand in the middle of the square and direct with simple up and down hand motions.

Hollow sqaure with leader.

Where can I go to hear Sacred Harp singing?

There are a number of local singing groups throughout New York state. Most meet once or twice a month, usually on Sunday afternoon. All welcome beginners! In addition, these local groups have begun meeting in Regional Singings which take place approximately every other month at the meeting place of one of the local groups. Regional Singings occur on Saturdays.

The major Sacred Harp event in New York State is the annual New York State Sacred Harp Convention which takes place each October. Sacred Harp singers from around the state as well as the entire northeastern United States and Canada meet to sing from The Sacred Harp and to enjoy the fellowship of other shape note singers.

Sacred Harp singing, above all, is participatory. No particular religious belief or affiliation is expected nor required. Though listeners are welcome, the real joy of this music is singing it with others!

Where and when do local groups meet?

The current schedules of local Sacred Harp singing groups are:

Regional Singings for 2014 are 10:00 to (usually) 4:00 on the following dates:

And the New York State Convention:

How can I learn more about Sacred Harp singing?

The best on-line source of information about not only Sacred Harp singing but also other varieties of shape note singing is the Fasola Home Page maintained by Keith Willard. This page has links to other important sources of information about Sacred Harp and shape note singing, including Dr. Warren Steel's Sacred Harp page, a page about the history of the shapes used in shape note music, and a link to a feature from Minnesota Public Radio about Sacred Harp singing. It also has information about subscribing to the fasola-singing mailing list.

Probably the best book on the subject of Sacred Harp singing is The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music by Buell E. Cobb, Jr. (ISBN 0-8203-1022-0) Written by a prominent Sacred Harp singer, this book examines the living tradition of this music from the point of view of an active participant in the tradition. The 1989 paperback edition was out of print but has reappeared in the catalog of the publisher, the University of Georgia Press, where the original ISBN is given. It has also become recently available through major online outlets such as Amazon.com with a different ISBN of 0-8203-2371-3. The price is $22.95.

A new documentary film by Matt and Erica Hinton, themselves Sacred Harp singers, has been recently released. Entitled Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, it is the result of seven years of filming and interviewing and has been enthusiastically received by the singing community. Visit their web site, www.awakemysoul.com, for trailers, reviews, and ordering information.


Maintained by Dennis Leipold (dleipold@stny.rr.com)

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