New life for an old tradition

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By day, John Alexander works for the Centers for Computation Intensive Research and Scholarship at UVA. But on nights and weekends, with Diane Ober, he organizes a local group called the Rivanna River Sacred Harp, Charlottesville’s steward of what some claim is the oldest surviving American musical tradition: Shape Note singing. 

Through a Virginia Folklife apprenticeship program, local Shape Note singers will study
under master singers from Clarke County. Among other things, they hope to learn how to “pitch” music.

If there was ever a big weekend for the powerful, easy-to-learn choral hymns in Charlottesville, it’s this weekend. After an all-day sing from 9am-4pm this Saturday at the Friends Meeting House—and by the way, you’re invited—Alexander and Ober will bring their group on Sunday to the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase. That event will kick off a year-long apprenticeship, during which Alexander and Ober will study under established Shape Note “masters” of the form from Clarke County. 

The Shape Note singers will be featured alongside masters of everything from oyster aquaculture to cheesemaking, Mongolian mask-making to banjo-playing at the festival. “We pair masters with apprentices in various types of traditional folkways,” says Jon Lohman, who runs the Virginia Folklife Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. “It’s a way to recognize them as Virginia’s folk masters, as well as to shine light on the traditions that people are often unaware of. We want to expand people’s notions of what it means to be a Virginian.”

Shape Note is a religious choral music that was born in colonial New England. It grew popular for its raw emotional power, and because it was easy to learn. Lohman says that the Shape Note tradition flourished along the Great Road, essentially I-81 today, that lined the valley running down the Shenandoahs. The region was a melting pot, but the Shape Note tradition was—and still is—particularly strong in the rural South, Alabama, in particular. What’s taking place in Virginia today, with groups like the one here in Charlottesville, and in Clarke County, he says, is more of a revival.

The chorus sings four syllables—fa, so, la and mi—that are plotted on sheet music with distinct shapes—triangles, ovals, squares and diamonds—intended to make sight-reading easy. As songs begin, singers warm up with a verse using the sounds associated with the shapes; by the second verse, singers start with the lyrics.

Its history is part of what Alexander says makes Shape Note singing a “very democratic tradition.” You don’t go to see Shape Note music performed. You go to sing it with the group. “The songs that are picked are picked by the people who sing the songs,” he says. “There’s no choir director—it’s all very much spontaneous, based on the people who are in the room and what songs call to them, and what they feel like they’d enjoy doing. It’s leaderless.”

And singing it feels really good. “The harmonies are raw and powerful, and the lyrics are raw and powerful,” says Alexander. “People tend to get into a very blissful, meditative state. And if you sing for a whole day”—all day sings last from 9am-4pm, with food and bathroom breaks—“you’re going to be in a very happy state.”

Alexander says he grew interested in the music after finding a record of a Shape Note convention in Alabama in the early 1960s. The convention had been recorded by Alan Lomax, the famous folkorist who, after his father John, had traveled the country collecting many of America’s musical traditions. 

Around the country, Shape Note singing is enjoying something of a renaissance, particularly among an educated class of young people in New England, says Alexander. That is likely thanks to two films that featured the music: Cold Mountain features one of the best known Shape Note songs, “Idumea,” which was written in the Northern Shenandoah Valley; and Awake, My Soul, a 2006 documentary that traced the music to its roots in the rural South. 

“It’s no longer a very staid traditional thing that only exists in rural pockets in the South, which is how it survived in the past,” says Alexander.

Funded through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship is a year-long program that provides masters with an honorarium and apprentices with some money to cover basic costs. Alexander says that, through his apprenticeship, he hopes he will learn how to “pitch” songs—that is, determine the range of the group so that everyone in the group can hit all four parts of a song’s harmony.

The Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase is on Sunday, September 11, from noon-5pm at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, at 145 Ednam Dr., off 250 West in Charlottesville. Check here for details.

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