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Up Beat Down South 'Make Heaven's Portals Ring" Shape-Note Singing BY GAVIN JAMES CAMPBELL Up Beat Down South is a new column on music in the South written by historian and musician Gavin Campbell. Future topics will include children's play rhymes and political campaign songs. Sing lustily, andwithgoodcourage. Beware ofsinging as ifyou were halfdead, orhalfasleep; but lift upyour voices with strength. —fohn Wesley In 1921 Hebert McNeill Poteat, professor ofLatin at Wake Forest University, had heard enough: the abominable condition of southern hymnody must be corrected . Despite the large number of edifying denominational hymnals, he complained , the singing public seemed bent on supporting a horde of "howling, prancing, evangelistic singers," whom he caustically labeled the "Religious Ragtime Association." Rather than majestic and reverential compositions, they peddled " 'sacred' twaddle" possessing only a "diin veneer of religion" that inspired "whooping, squalling and bellowing." That singers seemed to have an unquenchable thirst for these books excited Poteat's boundless indignation. "How in heaven 's name," he thundered, "can a one-step, beslimed with the sensual postures of a dance hall, make its way, as the bearer of holy adoration, above the earth and into the pure air of the NewJerusalem?" How, indeed? Much to Poteat's distress, one hundred years of denominational disdain had not lessened the appeal of vernacular sacred music. Since the early nineteenth century, the South's rural plain-folk had published hundreds of books with religious verses they had written, set to tunes they had composed, and transcribed in a musical notation they alone embraced called "shape-notes" or "patent notes." Over the course of a century, shape-note music evolved into an integral part of southern plain-folk evangelical religion that continues to thrive today. The unusual notation that gives the tradition its name first appeared in the early 1 800s in a northern tunebook called The Easy Instructor. Because many churches shunned musical instruments as agents of the devil, the authors designed their book to teach people to sing sacred music without instrumental accompaniment. Using the old system of solmization they applied syllables to notes in the scale, but, taking a new approach, they changed the note heads into different shapes. The triangle ("fa") was used as the first and fourth note of the major scale, the 99 Front coverJohn Gorden McCurry's The Social Harppublished in i8jj,from afolio reproduction, University ofGeorgia Press, 19/ß. oval ("sol") as the second and fifth, the square ("la") as the third and sixth, and the diamond ("me") as the sevendi note. Thus, a major scale sounded "fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, fa." The minor scale used the same syllables, but switched the order: "la, mi, fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la." The shapes meant that singers no longer had to learn the key signatures to determine the series of whole- and half-steps between intervals . "Fa" was always the first and fourth note of the major scale, regardless of the key. The invention quickly caught on and inspired a variety of alternate schemes. The most successful was a system invented in the 1 840s that used seven shapes and syllables: "do, re, me, fa, sol, la," and "si." Though invented in the North, shape-notes endured scorn and abuse there, and found more congenial quarters in the Soudi and the area just west ofthe Appalachians . Shape-notes arrived at a critical time in the development of southern sacred music. During the first part of the nineteenth century, various parts of the South convulsedwitii religious revivals in which music played a critical role. "The falling down of multitudes, and their crying out," one observer noted in 1803, "happened under die singing . . . more frequendy than under the preaching ofthe word." Yet the hymnals by Isaac Watts and Charles andJohn Wesley that campmeeting evangelists preferred contained no tunes, only texts. As a result, another IOO QAVlN JAMES CAMPBELL camp-meeting visitor wrote in 1801, "everyone sung what they pleased, and to the tunes with which he was best acquainted." Gradually, however, the tunes took shape from a hodge-podge of older hymns, camp-meeting spirituals, fiddle and dance tunes, and ballads, as well as from the influence of...


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