Sunday, January 21, 2007

Shape Note Sunday

Last night at the end of a busy couple of days, I decided what I needed was a little light entertainment. A movie, perhaps.

So I put in Cold Mountain.

What was I thinking?

Those of you who have seen the film recall how it starts. The scene is Petersburg at early dawn, and Union troops are laying explosives beneath a Confederate camp. The ensuing scenes -- the explosion, the settling of the dark dust to reveal advancing Union regiments, the ferocious battle, at the center of which is our protagonist Inman desperately attempting the rescue of a young lad from his Cold Mountain town who is ultimately skewered before Inman can reach him -- are paired with a solemn old mountain hymn, "Am I Born To Die?" delivered in a powerful shape note treatment.

It wasn't exactly the most relaxing choice I could have made, but it did get me thinking about Gospelgrass Sunday. So, today is Shape Note Sunday.

Shape Note singing was developed as a way to teach pitch and allow everyone in a congregation the chance to participate, almost as a choir except that everyone joins along. In the Southern hymnody tradition, everyone is seated in a square according to their vocal section -- soprano, alto, tenor, or bass. The method is based on a relative of solfege. The difference is that shape note singing is almost entirely modal, meaning the tune progresses almost entirely in whole steps except in what we know as the key of C.

The shape-note tradition evolved from the late-17th century Bay Psalter -- America's first hymnal -- in which the syllables for the shape notes were indicated below the notes on the staves, to an early 18th century edition in which the syllables and notes appeared on the staves, to the point around 1800 when the notes themselves took on specific shapes and the staves and syllables were dropped. Today shape-note singing is still practiced throughout the South. The Sacred Harp, compiled and issued by E.B. King in pre-Civil War America, is still used widely as the standard shape-note singing manual and is the moniker to generally describe the practice.

The tune I mentioned was perfect for that scene in which we watch a young boy meet his grisly death with all the terror and pain of giving up the immortality of being 15 or 16. His cries of anguish, and the enormous sea of bloodshed surrounding them, are no different than the suffering of those who meet their death in Iraq. But the Civil War, as horrible and devisive as it was, was a war that ultimate was fought to keep our brand-new nation from dividing itself and take a stand against slavery if mostly in principle (a battle we still fight 142 years later). The Iraq conflict is nothing more than one man's quest to put down a nation for hurting his Daddy. And to date, more than 3,000 American troops have died in that conflict, thousands more left disabled and jobless.

I wonder if the sitting U.S. President ever considers the questions in this hymn. They are so naturally the questions we all ask at the end of life, they call from our fear of dying, fear of not knowing what lies beyond death.
I suspect one day should death sneak up on our delusional leader of the free world, he will himself ponder these sentiments, a little late.

Idumea 47b
Tune: Ananias Davisson, 1816
Lyrics: Charles Wesley, 1763
Meter: Short Meter (6,6,8,6)

Sung here by Anonymous 4

AND am I born to die?
To lay this body down?
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown -

A land of deepest shade,
Unpierced by human thought,
The dreary regions of the dead,
Where all things are forgot?

2 Soon as from earth I go,
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe
Must then my portion be;

Waked by the trumpet's sound,
I from my grave shall rise,
And see the Judge with glory crowned,
And see the flaming skies.

3 How shall I leave my tomb?
With triumph or regret?
A fearful or a joyful doom,
A curse or blessing meet?
Will angel-bands convey
Their brother to the bar?
Or devils drag my soul away,
To meet its sentence there?


At January 23, 2007 9:13 PM, Anonymous uncreative said...

I can appreciate the place of shaped-notes historically and their influence on other things, but I have to tell you: they are a major pain in the ass to read! (keep in mind, in my prime, I could not just sight-read but sight-read and transpose from any key into what I needed, seldom missing a beat.)

At January 24, 2007 12:50 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Hey Uncreative,
I totally appreciate that experience (and how cool that you've done Shape-Note singing! That's on the "Five Things You Don't Know About Me" kind of list!)
Shape-notes are really a different musical language, like chant almost, developed for a different purpose expressly for worship. But looking at the music makes my head spin! I liken it to my trying to learn a version of the old tune, Wagoner's Lad. It's "almost" 6/8 time but otherwise has such a crooked meter I could never get the entrances right when accompanied. Jawbone and I have all but given up. At the same time I think that's what gives these special forms, and their progenitors, such a special place in our musical heritage. Sometimes the simpler something is, the harder it is.


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