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Area shape-note singing group keeps traditional music form alive in Southeast Missouri
On a quiet Saturday afternoon, eight people gathered in Christ Episcopal Church in Cape Girardeau to practice shape-note singing, a form of traditional music used in Christian worship for more than 200 years.
Introduced in 1801, "shape-note" refers to a music notation style designed to simplify sight-reading, making it easier for people in congregations to join in singing.
The music is written in four parts and sung a capella -- without musical instruments, explained Judy Bradley, who with John Ramsey organizes the shape-note sessions in Cape Girardeau. Those four parts, treble, alto, tenor and bass, are sung in a "hollow square," with chairs set up in a square shape with each part taking one side. A designated leader conducts the singers, but, Bradley says, as this group is still getting used to the style, there is no one leader just yet.
Four shapes make up the notes used in shape-note, Bradley says, which is different from traditional notes. Instead of only an oval with or without a stem, shape-note uses either a triangle, oval, rectangle or diamond shape with a stem. Singers associate each shape with a different syllable, fa, sol, la or mi, which are sung at different tones. The treble and tenor sections typically sing the same sections an octave apart.
"It takes practice," Bradley says.
Ramsey says a group has been rehearsing off and on for several years.
"We just started getting serious," he says. "We're getting stronger on parts."
Ramsey says they've learned tunes, "but we've struggled since none of us are in choirs -- we are now starting to make some beautiful sounds together, though."
He adds, "We're all green, but the secret to good singing is rhythm."
Ramsey says the history of shape-note is interesting to him, from a tradition standpoint and an innovation standpoint as well.
"This music was composed by people who made their own music, published books and sold them as they taught people around the country," Ramsey says. "It's how they made their money."
Ramsey says there are several different shape-note styles and associated books, but the one they use is "Sacred Harp," whose name is a reference to the biblical understanding of the human voice as a sacred harp. They use the 1991 edition, he says, and have books available for the group to borrow or purchase.
Ramsey says shape-note was at one time popular all over the United States, but beginning around the 1860s, it was pushed out in favor of newer music styles. It survived in the deep South, he says, among country people and old folks.
"It's very robust in the South," he says.
The group in Cape Girardeau is one of several in Missouri, he says, and suggested visiting fasola.org for more information on different group locations and more background information on the music itself.
In their practice sessions, the group warms up together, singing fa, sol, la or mi using a chart Ramsey uses to lead them.
Since shape-note singing uses syllables instead of specific notes, the scale is somewhat more fluid, but the group still hits the same note to start.
No one in the group claims perfect pitch, that is, being able to sing exactly on key, so out comes the cellphones, and a quick question to Siri has a pitch-pipe middle C for the group to land on together.
"The key doesn't matter as long as we're comfortable," Ramsey says, but C seems convenient.
"It's based on the sounds, not the notes," he adds.
"These guys'll try anything," he says, laughing.
The group chose "Amazing Grace" to sing, their voices at first distinct, a touch of struggle, but as they slowly warmed to each other, their voices blended into a single unit. They all walked through together, not just singing the melody, but each filling out their part.
Carla Jordan, director of the Cape Girardeau County History Center in Jackson and the museum in Altenburg, Missouri, says she and her husband Steve really enjoy efforts to keep traditional music alive in Southeast Missouri.
"We're excited," Jordan says. "Something really special and spiritual happens when we sing this music."
Jordan says shape-note was "a dream of mine, I caught the bug -- it's fun."
She added she likes to watch videos of people shape-note singing on YouTube, both for enjoyment and for guidance.
Shape-note isn't just a tradition for an isolated few, Ramsey says, not at all.
"Most people like to sing," Ramsey says. "They have it in their souls."