Crammed in a hallway between painted white brick walls, the Columbia Shape-Note Singers sit in a traditional hollow square shape, facing each other, and belt out their parts, trying to listen to others and harmonize. They are trebles, altos, tenors and basses but both women and men sing treble and tenor, so the double octave produces the effect of six parts. Usually the group practices upstairs at Trinity Presbyterian Church but tonight they’ve been booted for a meeting. So they make do with the hallway’s odd acoustics and the fact their two tenors are missing.
Penny and Lou Kujawinski have been members seven years, but the group was formed earlier. They think Columbia Shape-Note Singers is ten years old — it’s therefore considered a young group. Shape note singing began in the Northeast and at one time was national. It died out as a result of the “Better Music Movement” and was only preserved in the South. Now the music and singing groups are again nationwide. The local group has 10 members and is always looking for new people.
“This type of music isn’t meant to be sung by just a few people, it’s meant to be sung by a large group in four part harmonies,” Lou says. “It’s very old music, over hundreds of years old.”
Shape-note singing is American folk choral music based on traditional ballads and church hymns. It’s a product of the singing school movement of 18th century New England. Singing masters traveled from town to town teaching music basics and selling tunebooks. The music is written in standard notation, but the notes appear in four different shapes to help people sight-read. The shapes correspond to fa, so, la, fa, so, la, mi. The six parts cross each other freely because they’re not bound by the hierarchal chord structure imposed by piano parts. Chords are filled with octaves, fifths and fourths, rather than common triads of hymn and gospel tunes, and the melody is de-emphasized. Traditional shape-note singers ignore written pitches and adjust the relative pitch to meet the needs of particular singers. Penny acts as pitch-setter for the Columbia group.
According to a pamplet by a St. Louis shape- note group, “Song leading is egalitarian in this tradition. We don’t have a choral director, nor do we strive for performance quality. Each singer has a chance to lead any song in the book, and newcomers are welcome. The leader stands in the center, beating out the rhythm and delighting in the unearthly blending of sound rising form all four sides of the square. The performance style of harpers is ‘full bore, guts on the floor.’ They leave to others the delicate phrasing, the gentle modulation of dynamics and tone. For those accustomed to the ‘learned’ style of choral singing, exposure to Sacred Harp singers in full-wail can be an ear-ringing experience.”
The sound verges on a cacophony. But the music is not intended to be listened to; it’s intended to be experienced.
Lou and Penny go to many “sings” and just returned from a convention in Alabama.
“The sound is incredible. I was singing with 15 other guys who knew every song in the Sacred Harp book. They were just powerful, and every section sounded like that,” Lou says.
“It’s a lot of fun and it’s challenging,” Penny says. “You have to read your part, stay in pitch with others and focus on your singing.”
Lou and Penny are looking forward to Oct. 18 when their group will host a Sacred Harp Sing and potluck from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Last year, people came from as far away as Canada. The flier for the event reads, “At all Sacred Harp events, everyone is always welcome regardless of perceived vocal ability.”
“The sound on a full day sing is awesome,” Penny says. “It makes my bones vibrate.”
Penny and Lou say the “sing” is fun and the food is incredible. They are already anticipating sweet potato pie. In describing the potluck, Penny quotes a singer who told her, “The singing isn’t competitive but the potluck is.”
You don’t have to have musical training to sing and most members don’t. The group doesn’t perform — people join for the joy of singing.
“Even if you can’t key, it is easy to learn to sing using the shape system,” Lou says.
Penny and Lou became interested in shape- note singing when they heard it on the radio.
“We got excited and thought it was a professional group,” Penny says. “Then we saw a notice for the Sacred Harp all day sing. We attended and went crazy over it.”