Mississippi: The River of Song and more...

Smithsonian Institution
Midwestern Crossroads1: Americans Old and New2: Midwestern Crossroads3: Southern Fusion4: Louisiana: Where Music is King


Religious Vocal Traditions

Sacred Singing: Context and Background
       Shape note singing is based on a notational system developed in New England by early Colonial immigrants. At that point few people had music reading or ear training skills that allowed them to follow the complex doxologies and contrapuntal motifs common to sacred singing in Europe. The shape note system provided a shorthand to standard note reading. Reading the diamond, triangle and wedged shaped notes church members more easily learn basic music skills and establish a large repertoire of tunes. The system developed in more than one version and spread from New England to be used extensively throughout the South and Midwest. Collections of tunes were often published at the expense of the compiler, often a singing teacher or preacher, contained some rudiments of music and occasionally some original compositions and selected secular songs. They were distributed regionally, and are well-known as the various "sacred harps" in many states.
       Sacred harp music, also common radio fare, was broadcast on the radio in St. Louis only a few decades ago. A revival of interest occurring there and in Kansas City maintains the tradition of regular singings with guest leaders from outside churches. The St. Louis Shape Note Singers make use of Missouri's own sacred harp compilation, The Missouri Harmony, now republished a in a facsimile edition. More rare in some communities, singing is remembered from childhood by singing leaders who nurture small shape note groups within the larger, regular congregations.

Program Offerings:

       Shape note singing is demonstrated by family and members of the Church of God congregation from Springfield. The music is very energetic and includes sacred and secular tunes drawn from Cornelius' Rudiments of Music used by the leader as he grew up. The four vocal ranges are seated in separate sections, facing each other forming a square as they sing the open harmonies and swinging rhythms which give this music its bold and haunting character. Presenting artist: Johnny Elmore with family and friends
       A unique collection of family spirituals handed down from slave days is sung by Mrs. Ann Pittman with a quiet voice, subtle rhythmic maneuvers, and the falling intonation of blues songs. This program presents a rarely heard repertoire of family songs learned from Mrs. Pittman's grandmother. She deliberately retains original dialects making an important linguistic link with earlier dialect forms. Mrs. Pittman is committed to letting audiences hear the versions sung in the musical style and dialect which is as close as possible to the what she heard sung by her mother and grandmother. Symbols and metaphors are powerful teachers in these songs, as are the stories Mrs. Pittman tells of growing up in rural Mississippi. Using modern vocabulary substitutions she demonstrates ways to maintain relevant meaning in the songs without changing the basic message. Presenting artist: Ann Pittman
       Doris Frazier presents traditional African American gospel. Joined by a piano accompanist she brings a full sound to the songs she sings and links them with the vocal appeals typical to their church context. Moving piano solos provide transitions between vocal sections. Presenting artists: Doris Frazier with gospel piano accompanist

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