What is shape-note singing?

Perhaps the best place to start looking is the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association web page. 

Next Pittsburgh Sing : Saturday July 21st at 10:00 AM (note unusual date and time!)

In the month of July we will hold our monthly singing on July 21st in Frick Park (this will be our second not-so-annual Toby Dog Memorial Frick Park Shape Note Sing). We will start at 10 in the morning, share a potluck lunch, and continue singing as long as we have enough people who feel like it.
We will gather at the picnic shelter at the bottom of the Falls Ravine trail. If you're coming by car, enter the park from Lancaster Avenue, park in the lot, and walk north a few hundred feet to the shelter. Don't bring anything too heavy for the potluck since you have to walk it in! There's a water fountain by the shelter so don't worry about bringing a lot of heavy bottles.

Other upcoming singing events

On Friday, July 6, there will be a brown-bag lunch shape-note singing workshop at the Baptist House at the Chautauqua Institution in far western New York State. The workshop, taught by Ginny Huszagh of Ithaca,NY, will run from about noon to about 1:30 PM; after the workshop, we can continue singing until we all run out of gas. Katie White is the custodian of the Baptist House, and she can get you into the grounds of the institution on a 6 hour pass for a mere $3 (formal admission is a *lot* more expensive). If we carpool, we can get free parking on the grounds as well. If there's extra time, you can wander the grounds until the pass expires.

Baptist House
35 Clark Street
Chautauqua Institution, NY

If you're interested, you need to contact Katie so that she can reserve a pass for you:


716-357-3671 (Baptist House phone)

Make sure you tell her your name.

Singing in Schenley Plaza

For two years running we've had a fine time singing in the tent in Schenley Plaza (thanks to Donna Isaac of Calliope for organizing!)–you can see us in the photo after our singing. Thanks to Jo Schlesinger for the photo! See here for more pictures.

Shape note singers after outreach sing in Schenley Plaza




Other nearby monthly sings

Northwest PA Shape Note Singing

Mt. Union Sacred Harp Sing 

Shape note factlets

Shape note singing is a descendant of the usually unaccompanied harmony singing practiced in 18th-century New England churches. Before that time, the congregations sang hymns and metrical psalms in unison using a lining-out procedure: the deacon (or minister) would read the verse, then the deacon "set" a line by singing it to the psalm tune, and the congregation in response sang the same thing (in theory!), and the setting and singing proceeded line by line. No organs or other instruments, not even a pitch-pipe, were allowed in the New England churches, so the poor deacon had quite a job, as everyone who has "pitched" for shape-note singing knows (but the deacon was responsible not only for the pitch, but for knowing the tune and leading it). Here's a bit from the diary of Samuel Sewell, deacon for Boston's South Meeting House:

Dec. 28, 1705. ... Mr Willard preaches from Ps. 66.20 very excellently. Spake to me to set the Tune; I intended Windsor, and fell into High Dutch; and then, essaying to set another Tune went into a Key much too high. So I prayed Mr White to set it; which he did well, Litchf. Tune. The Lord humble me and instruct me, that I should be the occasion of any interruption in the Worship of God.


[Source: Alan Clark Buechner. Yankee Singing Schools and the Golden Age of Choral Music in New England, 1760–1800.]


And since the excellent Alan Buechner further refers me to the composer William Billings's introduction to his Continental Harmony (1794), I can't help sharing an example of Billings's inimitable sense of self-deprecating humor on the subject of lining-out. After condemning the practice at length as "absurd", he adds a footnote further complaining that it gives people an excuse to avoid buying hymn books since they don't need them in church, adding I confess this remark should have been inserted in the body of the work, but it did not take place in my mind till the pages were full; therefore I plead benefit of margin, a glorious privilege, for which bad memories and dull authors cannot be too thankful.



In Melville's Moby Dick (chapter 22), when the Pequod sets sail from Nantucket on an icy Christmas evening, Captain Bildad, the pious Quaker who owns part of the ship, pilots her out of the harbor. The narrator describes the scene as follows: 


As the old Craft deep dived into the green seas, and sent the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled, and the cordage rang, Bildad's steady notes were heard.


"Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood,

Stand dressed in living green.

So to the Jews old Canaan stood,

While Jordan rolled between."


Never did those sweet words sound more sweetly to me than then. 

[Bildad was singing Jordan (first) by Billings. Source: The Core Repertory of Early American Psalmody]


At the Augusta Heritage Festival 2015, Dr. Ron Pen of the University of Kentucky did a presentation in honor of Jean Ritchie (who died the previous spring). It seems the Ritchie family's custom was to get up before dawn on Christmas morning and go out singing carols. One of the songs they sang on these occasions was Wondrous Love. I had the privilege of participating in the singing of this hymn for Ron's presentation.


The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette   

 free publicity for our All-Day Singing Saturday June 7th 2014 at the Depreciation Lands Museum.

Videos from the Pittsburgh Regional All-Day Singing: Saturday March 22 2014

Thanks to Michael Kearney!