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Shaped Note Singing Spreads Throughout Country

November 21, 1990

IDER, Ala. (AP) _ In a hollow square at the front of the plain, wooden church, a group of singers wages musical warfare with a song’s harmony.

They bellow notes at the top of their lungs to ″put the tune in mind,″ singing a capella - without piano or other instrumental help.

Their sparse, strong harmonies vibrate through the wooden pews in Chestnut Grove Baptist Church, as they read an oblong book in which each of the four musical notes is shown with a different shape - triangle, circle, rectangle and diamond - for easier reading of the music.

The singing is called Sacred Harp, shaped note or fasola. It was common in the United States in the 19th century, but soon faded because it was considered too crude by churches which instead relied on imported compositions and a modern seven-note scale.

Almost unknown outside Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi by the 1930s, it survived in the Deep South. Why? Because as singer Buell Cobb says, ″You didn’t have anyone stomping around telling people it was no good.″

But survival is no longer a question.

The four-part a cappella harmonies are claiming passionate converts from Chicago to California. They are drawn to the primitive, deep sounds, and to the sense of community ″old book singing″ brings to all who sing and who listen.

In September, 400 ″shaped-note singers″ from 21 states gathered in Chicago for a two-day convention of the United Sacred Harp Musical Association. It was the first major fasola convention outside the South in 87 years.

The Northern resurrection of the genre came as fasola declined in the South, where singing schools gave way to modern entertainments. The singers, whose churches no longer relied on circuit preachers, went to church each Sunday and attended singings less often.

″Every year you lose about seven or eight all-day singings in the South because there aren’t enough singers to keep it up,″ said Ted Mercer, the unofficial leader of the Chicago singers.

Some of the Chicago singers are so committed to preserving the music they want to retire in the South to sing more, he said.

Kathleen Throw, a singer from St. Louis who was visiting Ider, a town in northeast Alabama, believes that urban Northerners are doubly appreciative of the sense of community that comes with fasola singings.

Singers often speak of being ″grabbed″ or ″knocked off my feet″ when they first hear Sacred Harp signing.

″I was so stunned. ... They were singing at decibel levels I didn’t think the human voice could reach. I have never in my life heard anything like it,″ Chicago singer Judy Hauff says of the first singing she attended.

The Chicago singers began with photocopies of Sacred Harp music, searching out Hugh McGraw and his Sacred Harp Publishing Co. in Breman, Ga. The company is working on the first major revision of a Sacred Harp book since the 1930s, with 65 new songs.

Hauff and Mercer returned to Chicago determined to have authentic note- singings and all that went with them: dinner, memorials and the singings.

The all-day singing in Ider on the second Sunday each October, listed in church records as early as 1927, is the old style at its richest.

Singers range from 87-year-old Leonard Lacy to 19-year-old Jeffrey Wootten, and a mouth-watering noon meal of fried okra, turnip greens, chicken and other favorites is set out.

Unlike traditional choral music, Sacred Harp singing is not for the audience, said Cobb, who’s written ″The Sacred Harp,″ a history of the music. ″We have become a society that watches television, that ... watches other people do things. This is something that you do yourself,″ he said.

He believes the music represents an old rural way of life many Southerners tried to escape. But that way of life attracts non-Southerners, says Keith Willard, an AIDS researcher in Minneapolis.

″I think it’s hard for people in urban areas to achieve a sense of community, to develop deep ties between neighbors. I’m a scientist, used to dealing with things rationally, analytically. This ... was like suddenly walking into a group of people and feeling at home,″ he said.

Willard, who helped organize the first all-day singing in Minneapolis-St. Paul, appreciated the value of everyone’s participation.

″There are lots of people who appear not to be too far away from death who are still coming and contributing and greatly appreciated by the other singers for what they can pass on,″ he said.

Marcia Johnson, a Jewish lawyer from Chicago who concedes it’s a bit odd for her to be ″singing the praises of Jesus,″ says the music has universal themes.

″I’m 52 years old and I sometimes used to think about whether my friends or family would die before I did. I know now that as long as there are singers, I will have people that I love and who love me,″ she said.

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