Shape Note Singing
Christian Harmony in Newton County, Mississippi
By Dr. John Gressett Hollingsworth, Jr.
Music has always played a part in church worship. In the early rural churches of this country and especially in the Deep South, members of the congregation seldom had any formal training in music. In most cases, as well, the church could not afford, and often did not desire, any musical instrumentation, such as an organ or piano, items considered essential in most churches today. Music, therefore, was rendered a capella and a system of shape notes was developed to make it easier for people to sing according to a uniform standard. The term sacred harp was popularized to describe the human voice which was used to provide music in the purest of forms possible.
Shape note tune books appeared, singing schools sprang up with some organized with the song books in mind. From the singing schools came improved music in church worship. But the fellowship did not end there and singings were organized as separate events from regular church worship. With the growth in interest in shape note music singers from various communities combined to form annual conventions. These moved from church to church and lasted from one to three days.
One of the early shape note tune books was the Southern Harmony by William Walker in 1835. This book enjoyed huge success and sold in the hundreds of thousands of copies. B. F. White followed in 1844 with Sacred Harp, which, with various revisions, has been used ever since. Both of these books used a four interval notation (the major scale being Fa, Sol, La,--Fa, Sol, La, Mi). In 1866 William Walker published another shape note book, The Christian Harmony. This publication introduced a seven interval notation of Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si (the latter note later changed to Ti). This is the book adopted by the Newton County Sacred Harp Convention.
The tunes for these books were collected far and wide and were often borrowed from secular music. The tune Blue Bells of Scotland, for example, appears as Singing School in the Christian Harmony hymnal. Raymond Hamrick tells me that the Sacred Harp tune known as Soft Music was a very old German drinking song. Some of the tunes were so old that their origin is unknown; others were written by contemporary American songwriters. The song known to most of the public as Amazing Grace appears under the title of New Britain in the Christian Harmony songbook.
The singing commences as a leader calls for a song. A person is then selected to pitch the song to give the group a key to sing in. This is followed by the singing of the notes, i. e., Do Re Me, etc., so that the group is familiar with the tune before they attempt the words. This is the traditional way of beginning a singing. When the first leader has called a pre-determined number of songs, a second leader stands to direct the singing, and so the process continues
Rufus Rigdon and Robert Everett lead the singing at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church during the 1970s. Note the distinct 4 parts of a square formed: right-back-left-foreground.
The singers are organized into a square with the bass section (almost exclusively men) as one part of the square, the altos (usually women) a second part of the square, the treble (both males and females with high-pitched voices) a third part of the square, and the melody or tenor forming the fourth and final part of the square.
Hugh Bill McGuire and I remember my uncle Millage Hollingsworth telling that Elansom Green Everett was the first president of the Newton County Sacred Harp Convention, was not reappointed for the second year in its existence, but then returned in that position for another 50 years and only relinquished the position with his death. Green died at Hickory, Mississippi on August 1, 1927 in his 79th year. Based on our calculations, therefore, the Convention would have originated about 1875. This agrees with the notes kept by the late Sidney Scarborough, President of the Convention during the 1940s.
Some of my earliest memories are from these singings at the different churchesLiberty (north of Duffee), Pleasant Ridge, Blue Springs (north of Chunky), Old Union (near Chunky), Lebanon, Fellowship, Sand Springs, and, of course, Macedonia.
Transportation was a little more difficult in the late forties and fifties, and we thought the trip to Liberty was very long from my home near Conehatta. We left early and returned late. I dont recall going in a wagon, but there would be wagons with teams of mules at the singings in the late 1940s. We would always stop on our way home from Liberty to visit with Aunt Janie who lived along the way near Little Rock. She was the daughter of Red Jim Harris and the half-sister to my grandmother Catherine Harris Hollingsworth.
Many of the Newton County singers seldom if ever ventured to other parts of the state to sing, but my Uncle Millage was always eager to go and he wanted someone to do with him and I was the most eager candidate. We could go to Calhoun County, Webster County, and other points north, and also go south to Smith County, Jones County, Jasper County, Clarke County, and to some singing near Hattiesburg. We often had trouble finding the rural churches where the singings were held, but my Uncle Millage had a method of dealing with this. He simply waited on the roadside for a singer to pass and would follow that person to the church. Singers, after all, look different from other people and we were always able to recognize a passerby as a singer whether we had met him before or not.
Fond memories are among lifes richest blessings and these singings are prominent in my memory chest. When we sing I sometimes remember singers that as I as a child thought were very old. Now I am their age, but the memory remains unaltered. They had their favorite songs and as we now sing these songs a half century later, I remember the old singers and how blessed I am to have known them. Some of these songs are still regulars and some are seldom sung, but their singing always stirs sweet memories of the old-timers who sang them.
Blessed to my memory are singers and songs from long agoof John Gressett and his son Clarence singing Boylston, Dennis, and Night, of Uncle Millage Hollingsworth singing Condescension (seldom sung anymore), of Clarence Gressett and Clifton Rigdon singing Lonsdale; of all of the Rigdons, the McNeills, the Thornes, Rasberry Jones, Johnny Webb, Uncle Jim Hollingsworth, Mack Hall, my parents, (and the list grows long) of lifting their voices in Christian Harmony.
The real story of shape note singing is not in the details of how it is done, the source of the tunes, the dates that the tunes were written, or even of the organizers. The real story is the incredible closeness of this family of singers which has lasted for generations. When newcomers join the group they always comment on how quickly they sensed this kinship. We love the music and we love to sing, but more importantly, we love each other. That is the true meaning of Christian Harmony.
The Newton County Christian Harmony Convention was organized in 1875 and is believed to be the oldest continuing Christian Harmony convention.
Read the article about the 2013 convention in the Newton County Appeal.