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Shape Note Singing May Be Endangered Tradition in South Carolina

Glen Wright leads Shape Note Singing at NEFFA.
squashpicker [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via Flickr
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Glen Wright leads Shape Note Singing at NEFFA.
C major scale in shape notes, the 4-shape system of the Sacred Harp.
Credit Opus33 via Wikimedia Commons
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C major scale in shape notes, the 4-shape system of the Sacred Harp.

A musical tradition begun in Colonial America which flourished in the South in the late 19th to mid 20th centuries is still carried on in South Carolina.  It’s shape note singing - also known as fa-sol-la, Jubilee or sacred harp singing.  A method developed to teach music to people who couldn’t read music, the notes on the page use shapes such as round, square, and triangular to represent the various pitches. 

Lena Davis of Anderson learned the music from her father, and founded the Community Workshop Choir,  which she leads in the Electric City.  University of South Carolina ethnomusicologist Birgitta Johnson says singing the music can be  a social event as much as a musical one, and choir members gather in a semicircle and often warm up to a song by singing the first verse by the pitches - do, re, mi, etc. (hence the nickname fa-sol-la, or sometimes do-re-mi) – before singing the actual lyrics of the song.  Davis is worried that modern singers are not taking up the music as they once did, and that appreciation for it is waning in the state.  But ironically, says Johnson, one aspect of modern technology – YouTube – is helping preserve and spread the music through videos of shape-note choirs around the country.  

Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.