On a chilly winter afternoon in early 2010, members of the United Note Singers gathered in Ray Backers’s living room, a small but cozy space in his home in rural west Georgia. The room was comfortably warm, thanks to a small heater that had been set into the old fireplace, and quiet chatter punctuated with laughter greeted visitors as they came in the door. Arranged on sofas and chairs around a coffee table laden with snacks and soda, a group of seven men and women had gathered to talk about an important part of their lives and memories. They were drawn together by the opportunity to share their passion for the music that they sing and the faith and heritage that it represents. As they each told their stories, they transported their listeners to lamp-lit evenings where children followed shape notes with little fingers, humid Sunday afternoons filled with music and laughter, and white-washed churches where singers sat swaying in creaky pews. On that January day, the music that the United Note Singers sang became a way to connect with living history.
Shape note singing first appeared in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as a simplified method of teaching people to read music. Beginning in New England and then spreading to other parts of the country through classes conducted by itinerant “singing-masters,” shape note singing assigned each scale tone a shape, such as a diamond, a circle, a triangle, or a square, and taught singers to recognize the tone by the shape. Early shape note singing relied on a four-note system incorporating the musical syllables “fa,” “sol,” “la,” and “mi,” tones which were common in popular folk songs and hymns. Known as “fasola,” this method enabled congregations to quickly learn new songs and four-part harmonies. In the 1840s, a seven-note system that encompassed the entire octave (“do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do”) appeared alongside the “fasola” method.
While both styles enabled singers to learn to read music by recognizing the distinctive shapes and the intervals between them, the years following the Civil War divided Southern shape note singers into two camps, with one side preferring the more traditional four-note system and the other favoring the more “progressive” seven-note method. Many of those who adhered to the four-note tradition became identified by their use of Benjamin F. White’s Sacred Harp hymnal and its revisions. The seven-note method was heavily promoted by the Reubusch-Kieffer publishing company of Virginia through publications, singing schools and conventions, and frequent production of new tunebooks. The growing popularity of gospel music also contributed to the proliferation of the seven-note system, as many singers became interested in reading more contemporary musical works.
In modern times, both methods of shape note singing still survive among enthusiasts in the South and other regions of the country. The Sacred Harp style of singing has been preserved by the efforts of many individuals, such as Georgia’s Hugh McGraw. Publishing companies and singing schools that use the seven-note method have also flourished in the South.
Methods of shape note singing have traditionally been highly regional in character. In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, for example, many white singers prefer the seven-note system as written in the Harmonia Sacra, while in the 1990s the African American community in southeast Alabama experienced the resurgence of Judge Jackson’s The Colored Sacred Harp, a hymnal that employs the four-note system. In west Georgia, or the region of the state that stretches from Atlanta to the Alabama line, north to the city of Rome, and south to the city of Newnan, singers in the African American community have adhered to the seven-note method for generations.
Though it is difficult to know exactly why or how the seven-note system came to be preferred by African American note singers in this area, it is clear that by the early twentieth century this style of note singing was a popular form of musical worship and social recreation. At a time when most of west Georgia was still overwhelmingly rural, shape note singing was handed down though families and practiced in community rehearsals and singing classes. Ray Backers, who learned to sing notes during his childhood in the late 1930s, remembers that his great aunt taught him and his siblings:
I got a book and whatever she said, I said, and I’d put my finger right on that note ‘till I learned it. And I learned how to say one from the other and I’ve been doin’ it ever since. At night that’s all we had to do… didn’t have nowhere to go unless we went possum huntin’. We light the ol’ lamp, she’d tell us, “Get your books ya’ll and let’s practice a li’l.” So, that’s what we’d do. Sometimes, we’d go from house to house and practice.
Bishop Matthew Norwood remembers learning to sing notes from his mother, but also recalls that his father was the president of Class Number One of the United Note Singers of Atlanta:
“We had what they call Class Number One of the United Note Singers. There were about twelve classes throughout the city of Atlanta and they would all meet once a week to rehearse and then they’d have their singing Sunday.”
Mrs. Ruby F. Montgomery learned to sing notes from her father and, in her turn, taught other note singers in the weekly rehearsals of the East Rome singing class. Many singers recall that learning to read shape notes was easy and natural, even though note singing takes dedication and practice to perfect. Most also say that they continued to learn from other note singers as they attended singings throughout their lives.
Note singings were events that brought singers, their families, and the rest of the African American community together. First and foremost, the music served as a form of sacred worship that had its foundation in the churches. While note singing was generally not part of regular Sunday services, individual churches often provided places for singing classes to meet and hosted monthly all-day singings. Beginning just after the Sunday morning service, these events lasted throughout the afternoon and usually included a much anticipated dinner on the grounds. In addition to the singings planned at individual churches, note singers from several churches would often form conventions and come together for all-day singings, which took on a fair-like atmosphere. Richard Backers, Ray Backers’s younger brother, recalled:
“They would have all kind of vendors and you could get just about anything you wanted to eat and drink. I always enjoyed goin’ ‘cause you get to see your friends…schoolmates, you know…and they was pretty lil’ girls runnin’ around there….[I’d be] all set to see my friends and…just rip and run and have a good time…You could get cotton candy and snow cones…Boy, they’d be so good…”
Note singing also offered the opportunity to travel throughout the South and to other regions. Richard Backers remembered that his mother, even though she didn’t sing notes, enjoyed going to singings held in Chattanooga, Tennessee, because it gave her a chance to spend time with friends. Other singers remember travelling to such cities as Knoxville, Tennessee; Anderson, South Carolina; and Cincinnati, Ohio, where they sometimes performed in concert halls because these were the only venues that could accommodate the large numbers who attended.
While today’s note singers rarely attend huge convention singings or buy treats from vendors at all-day events, they still continue many of the traditions that made note singing such an important part of family and community life for generations. For most, note singing is still primarily a form of worship, where the music and lyrics of songs offer an opportunity to praise God and rejoice over his blessings. Note singers often emphasize that the lyrics of songs are what really draw them to the music and they choose their favorite songs based on how the words inspire them. The distinctively emotional singing style that characterizes note singing reflects the spiritual meaning that singers find in the hymns. The song lyrics often embrace themes such as finding joy in a Christian life and the promise of heavenly rewards, move singers to stand, shout, clap, and even dance as they sing.
Beyond being a spiritually satisfying, note singing is also the foundation of a community of individuals who identify with one another and share a deep love for the music that they sing. The opportunity for fellowship is often cited as one of the most enjoyable elements of note singing. Contemporary singers come together in associations such as west Georgia’s United Note Singers or the Associated Note Singers of Atlanta to learn note singing, to practice, and to travel to the note singings scheduled throughout the year at various churches. Typically, these singings are held on Saturday or Sunday, begin in the early afternoon, and include a break for supper. Before the service begins, the room echoes with joyful greetings and laughter as friends find one another and settle into their seats. Usually, singers sit in a hollow square with the sopranos facing the altos and the tenors facing the basses. Though most note singers from both the four-note and seven-note traditions use this formation, African American singers in west Georgia allow for a more fluid arrangement, with family and friends sometimes sitting together to share music regardless of their vocal part.
After a few hours of singing, the group dismisses for supper, where long tables are laden with traditional Southern fare such as fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, green beans, and all of the tempting desserts that can be imagined. As they eat, singers and their families socialize, often calling out greetings and jokes as they spot friends across the room. After these refreshments, singers return to their places for a few more hours of singing, finally concluding in the early evening. At the end of the service, someone usually announces the schedule for upcoming singings, where the singers will again meet in fellowship.
Modern day note singers, like those before them, are also very serious about their skills as musicians and pay close attention to the quality of the music that they sing. While note singers welcome newcomers of any skill level, they also emphasize that it takes effort and dedication to learn to sing notes. Each individual must be able to identify the shapes of the notes and the tones they represent, must learn how long each type of note should be held, and must train their ears and voice to meet the appropriate pitch and achieve harmony with the other vocal sections. Many note singers are very proud of the skills that they acquire and are always eager to perfect their music by learning from the more experienced singers around them. The ultimate reward of their efforts is beautiful music that is enjoyed by both singers and listeners alike
In many ways, the music that fills the social and spiritual lives of African American note singers in west Georgia is a distinctive tradition that has a sound and culture all its own. Though the seven-note method of singing and many hymns and harmonies are shared by both black and white singers, African American note singing is a distinctive blend of the beliefs and emotionalism of evangelical Christianity, the musical heritage of African American spirituals, and the personalities of the singers themselves. Clapping and shouting often punctuate the refrains of songs, singers stand as they are moved by the music, and individuals often develop personal singing and song-leading styles that are remembered for generations. The heavy, rich sound of African American spirituals color many songs, especially those that are used to warm-up singers’ voices at the beginning of singings. Hymns may be sung slower or faster than written and singers sometimes incorporate a limited amount of improvisation into their music. Usually, singers mark the rhythm of the music with their hands and feet in an echo of a time when musical instruments were very scarce or completely unavailable. The result of this blending of spirituality, African American culture and history, and personal style is music that can only be heard when note singers gather together.
In the year and a half since that January afternoon in Ray Backers’s living room, I have met many, many note singers who come from countless places to sing notes, to enjoy fellowship with one another, and to worship God. I have had the privilege of attending several note singings and have been welcomed to supper, often returning to my little apartment with a plate laden with desserts. Though I could not have known it when I started, my work on this project has also given me the chance to remember why I fell in love with singing in the first place. My personal passion for vocal music began as a child, when I sat beside my grandmother on Sunday mornings, singing songs from a battered “red back” hymnal. While most note singers have a collection of shape note books so large that they have to be transported in wheeled suitcases, many profess a particular fondness for the same “red back” hymnal that I remember from my childhood. As I have attended note singings and worked on research, I have had many occasions to pull out my own tattered hymnal. While the cloth edges are frayed, the pages are yellowed, and the threads holding the spine together are coming loose, the music inside is still the fount of the joy that singing has always brought to me. Those hymns taught me what it was like to feel music…to know the moment when the lyrics strike the heart, when the rhythm compels your hands to clap, and when the harmony of voices is so beautiful that it seems to draw your own voice to join in the song.
Those individuals who sing notes today know the feeling of which I speak. Their music is an inheritance, passed from generation to generation, in the hopes that it will continue to inspire hearts and draw people together. As I have worked on this project, I have had the opportunity to share in that inheritance and to remember why music is an important part of our history. History, above all, is the story of our past and the people who lived it. Music gives sound to that story.
– Dusty Marie Dye, 2010