Posts Tagged ‘shape note’

Naturally 7

June 5, 2009

I love these guys. I watched a recent TED talk with them and I keep getting distracted with their YouTube videos. One of my favorites is them singing on a Paris subway because you get to see real people reacting to their energy.

Today I heard about a link to another N7 video (thank you, Twitter!) just as I had just finished writing a summary of 4-shape and 7-shape tunebooks and their relationship to what is called Southern gospel. A good number of the gospel songbooks printed around the turn of the twentieth century employed the 7-shape system. Naturally.

Tracing the melody

June 3, 2009
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I spent Monday in the Hay-Harris Library at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, looking at old shape-note tunebooks, including:

  • Christian Harp, attributed to C. H. Brunk (Singer’s Glen, VA, Joseph Funk’s Sons, 1867)
  • Song-crowned King, compiled by Aldine Kieffer (Singer’s Glen, VA, Ruebush and Kieffer, n.d. [cover indicates 1870])
  • Christian Harmony, compiled by William Walker (Philadelphia, Miller’s Bible and Publishing House, 1873)
  • Temple Star, compiled by Aldine Kieffer and B. C. Unseld (Singer’s Glen, VA, Ruebush and Kieffer, 1878)

All of these tunebooks use seven shapes, with one vocal part per staff, in the same manner as is used in the four-shape, four-syllable tunebooks such as B. F. White’s Sacred Harp and William Walker’s Southern Harmony (for an explanation of the Sacred Harp singing tradition, see Fasola.org). The following shows an example of this dispersed notation, from Walker’s Christian Harmony.

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Dispersed notation, from Christian Harmony

These tunebooks fall into a transition period between the older four-shape sacred song tradition and the rising gospel music style. In the fasola-style (four-shape and the seven-shape books that adhere to the older style), the melody is in the Tenor (the staff directly above the Bass); above that are the Counter (sometimes called the Alto) and the Treble. In Southern Harmony (I have the facsimile edition of the 1854 edition) Walker describes the two lower parts as being for male voices and the two upper for female, though he recognizes that the upper parts may be sung by men (no mention is made of women singing the melody). Twenty years later, in Christian Harmony, Walker suggests allows for both male and female voices on all but the Bass part. While Walker included “a large number of new tunes, from eminent composers, never before published” (title page), his modernization seems to be limited to the use of seven shapes and a recognition of the vocal variety that presumably was occurring in singing schools and conventions.

The Christian Harp contains many fewer tunes, being one of the small tunebooks that would later become a staple of the gospel-music singing conventions. No instructional or pedagogical information is included in the book, but observation reveals that the melody is still in the tenor. The book includes tunes for two, three, and four voices (I have not witnessed two-voice tunes in other books so far). Occasionally the tenor and counter/alto are combined on one staff, as seen below.

Combined tenor and counter, from Christian Harp

Combined tenor and counter, from Christian Harp

This might be perceived as a modernization or a nod towards traditional European-style condensed notation (soprano and alto on the upper staff, tenor and bass on the lower), but I suspect it was employed more as a space-saving device given the size of the book (13 X 16 cm., 112 pages). The tunes and texts do seem (without a thorough study) to reflect George Pullen Jackson’s assessment that they contain a “new note of optimism.” Jackson notes that many of them are in the major mode, contain larger melodic leaps and syncopation, and use a greater pitch compass. He further characterizes them as having an “instrumentally influenced melodism,” caused apparently by the introduction of the melodeon and Sunday-school reed organ into churches. He goes no further in quantifying this statement, so it is difficult to determine what he means. I have to trust that he senses a significant change in the temperament of the songs in this tunebook, distinguishing it from its four-shape, tradition-bound brethren.

From the same publisher, Ruebush and Kieffer, only three years later, we have Song-crowned King, compiled by Aldine Kieffer. The instructional pages label the parts as soprano (also called air or treble), alto, tenor, and bass. Soprano and alto are female voices, tenor and bass, male. The melody is printed in the staff above the bass staff, and Kieffer further states that the soprano and alto sometimes occur on the same staff. The first tune in the book has only three voices, labeled from top to bottom tenor, treble, bass. In other words, in this book the melody has been renamed soprano/air/treble and assigned to the highest female voices and what had been the treble has been renamed tenor and assigned to the highest male voices. This represents a shift in nomenclature towards the Europe-style condensed notation, and the voice distribution also more closely resembles the SATB-style hymns in use in other hymnbooks. If singers followed the instructions closely and shifted female voices exclusively onto the melody, the sound of the song would have changed. It is hard to imagine, though, that singers would affect such a change rapidly or consistently. Certainly, the notation leaves the possibility open of performing the songs in exactly the way they had been for decades.

Temple Star employs the same terminology, the same dispersed notation, and the same voice distribution as Song-crowned King. The only difference is that it now uses Jesse Aikin’s seven shapes rather than the shapes that Kieffer’s grandfather, Joseph Funk, had devised and used for several publications.

My next goal is to examine two later Ruebush and Kieffer publications, Royal Proclamation (1886) and Star of Bethlehem (1889). According to Jackson the soprano and alto are on one staff and the tenor and bass on the other. The gospel music publishers that sprang up in the South beginning in the last decades of the nineteenth century also used the SA/TB condensed notation with seven shapes, but the music itself stands apart from the fasola-style in numerous ways. It will be interesting to see how these two Ruebush and Kieffer books compare.