Press Release: Notes From The Brink
Summary: Singers Celebrate As The Arrival Of New Books Breathes New Life Into A 148-year Regional Singing Tradition
Date: November 2015
Release: Upon Receipt
Sidebars: Other Traditions; Where Do We Sing? Art/Graphics
Contact: Zack Allen; firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura Boosinger; email@example.com
Singing The Shapes
Notes From The Brink -- Saving A Tradition
“It needed to be done, so we did it.” Zack Allen leaned back in the computer chair he claims to have been chained to for the last four months. He holds up a fresh and shiny new advance review copy of an old book -- William Walker’s 1873 Christian Harmony -- and he grins like a proud parent.
“It’s not about the time, or the expense,” he says, “All the study, the scanning, the electronic cleanup and editing of every page will be worth it in the end, just knowing that another generation will be singing the shapes from Walker’s original Christian Harmony.”
Allen, an Asheville native who now lives in Crossnore, is editor, publisher and everything else at Folk Heritage Books, the low-profile, non-profit publisher of the new facsimile edition of the 1873 shaped-note songbook. “We were almost out of books and without books, this singing tradition will die.”
The newly-published Christian Harmony reprint will be celebrated at a special all-day dedication singing from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 5 at the Madison County Arts Council Building in downtown Marshall, NC. “There will be loaner books available and folks bring dishes to share for ‘dinner on the grounds’,” arts council director Laura Boosinger says. “We expect to have singers from several states. You can come and listen but it’s better when you join in. It’s that kind of event. ”
The Christian Harmony is a collection of primarily religious songs with deep roots in the American soil and in the North Carolina mountains. It was compiled and first published by South Carolina singing school master William Walker in 1867 and revised by him two years before his death in 1875. Its contents echo through time and reflect some of the earliest musical traditions of America
But the book’s appeal is much broader than its hymnbook origins, Allen says. “Today non-religious folks, as well as people of all faiths, love the raw-boned pioneer spirit of shaped-note music. It’s archaic and the harmonies are powerful and sometimes haunting. There are events throughout the year and serious singers will travel all around the mountains and beyond to go to a singing. Then they start getting ready for the next one.”
While there are those who see every song as a sermon, Allen says that there are just as many singers who just love the folk music roots of the music and the way it makes history come alive. “No matter who you are or where you come from, when you sing, you become part of a community. The music sometimes binds us together in a joy so strong that it can bring tears to your eyes.”
Except for the shape of the note heads and having a staff for each part, shaped-note music looks a lot like regular music, Allen says. “It makes sight reading much easier. You just have to memorize the shapes (do-re-mi, etc.) and the intervals between notes and then you can sing in any key.”
The 1873 book reprints, including the new 2015 Folk Heritage edition, are unrevised and maintain the original tune collection and the unique Walker 7-shape notation system devised by its author,” Allen said. It has been referred to as the “Carolina Book,” reflecting its use primarily in the western Carolinas and parts of East Tennessee and North Georgia.
Allen says that the original 1873 Christian Harmony should not be confused with a near cousin, a contemporary songbook with a wide following, the “2010 Christian Harmony.” That book is a descendant of the so-called "Alabama Book," a 1958 major revision of Walker's original Christian Harmony, he added. “The latest edition (the 2010) does restore all the tunes that were taken out in the 1958 revision (albeit with different pagination and different note shapes) but they also kept the new songs that were added then and in later revisions. These added songs often reflect a more modern gospel-flavored sound.” The “Alabama book” editors also chose to drop the original Walker 7-shape notation and replace it with Aikin shapes, a note system much used in gospel and revival books.” The 2010 book is now published in Georgia and is freshly typeset. It continues to use the Aikin 7-shape notation system.
“Our music is also a bit different from the gospel and revival ‘little book’ singings that were popular 50 or 75 years ago.” Allen says. “Those books were usually small-format paperbacks and almost universally used Aikin seven-shape notation. They were printed frequently by a wide variety of publishers including Stamps-Baxter, Ruebush-Kieffer, Robert Vaughn, R.P. Winsett and George Sebren. They put a lot of stress on newly written songs.”
“So, here we are, nearly 150 years after folks in the Carolina mountains first sang these shapes, and 21 years after we last reprinted,” Allen says , smiling with contagious enthusiasm. “A whole new generation of singers and now we have books. If they don’t want to sing from the old Christian Harmony, it won’t be because we don’t have books.”
While singing from William Walker’s 1873 Christian Harmony is closely tied to the history and heritage of Western North Carolina, it is far from the only active shaped-note community
“We share this rich tradition with other shaped-note songbooks with their origins in the 18th and 19th centuries,” says Zack Allen, whose non-profit Folk Heritage Books publishes the new 2015 reprint edition. “By far the most widespread singing community, with regular singings all across the U.S. and an international following, is that of 1844 Sacred Harp. The Sacred Harp uses a different notation and was first published in 1844.”
Other active regional shaped-note songbook traditions include that of M.L Swan’s “New Harp of Columbia (1867), in East Tennessee, The Shenandoah Harmony, a 2013 compilation inspired in part by Ananias Davisson’s Kentucky Harmony (1816), the 2010 Christian Harmony (revised) and smaller groups who sing from time to time from Walker’s Southern Harmony (1835), John G. McCurry’s Social Harp (1855), and Allen D. Carden’s Missouri Harmony (1820).
The Dec. 5, Christian Harmony event in Marshall, NC is just one of many such singings held throughout the year, some of them in Western North Carolina and in nearby parts of adjoining states. Some singings have chosen to be dedicated exclusively to the “Walker Book” while a number of others use the revised “Christian Harmony, 2010 edition.”
Some singings share the musical stage with the New Harp of Columbia or the Sacred Harp. If you can’t get to the Marshall singing on Dec. 5, there will be a two-day event Dec. 12th and 13th at St. John’s Historic Church in Rutherfordton, NC, with singing from the Christian Harmony (2010) on Saturday the 12th and from The Sacred Harp on Sunday the 13th. There will be a shared dinner on the grounds both days.
More information and schedules of recent and upcoming regional Christian Harmony singings may be found at www.christianharmony1873.org, www.christianharmony.org and www.thechristianharmony.com. These sites also offer links to where you may access additional information about the Christian Harmony and shaped-note singing in general. Information on The Sacred Harp may be found at www.fasola.org.