95. Promised Land
Written by Samuel Stennett, 1787
Performed by The Pioneer Sacred Harp Singers, c.1926
From the CD Religion is a Fortune – Various Groups – Early 1900s (County Records, USA 2004)



All Music Guide writer Ronnie D Lankford Jr. has a point when he describes the experience of listening to the songs on this album: ‘the sounds of male and female voices, rising and falling along a four-note scale, sound primitive’. Listening to these songs, Langford tells us, is like encountering ‘something snatched from an earlier time in American history.’ [1]

The songs, recorded in the mid 1920’s, sound older than their years. Maybe what we hear in these recordings are residues of the ideas that informed sacred harp music, also known as shape note singing. Those ideas extend back to 1620 and the arrival in America of the first boatload of migrants from England, the Puritans, and their founding of the first English colonies of Boston Bay and Massachusetts.

Alabama’s Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association, also known as Fasola, are one of a handful of surviving shape note singing groups, and they trace the shape note tradition back to England in around 1600, when a shape note scale of 8 notes was adopted – ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do. [2] The text Shape Notes Story, which can be found on the website of the Bidwell Museum in Monterey, Massachusetts, [3] traces shape note singing to the 1720s with the publication in New England of The Art of Singing Psalms, by Reverend John Tufts, minister of Newburyport, and the publication in 1801 of the first shape note system, developed by William Little and William Smith under the title Easy Instructor: Or A New Method Of Teaching Sacred Harmony.

But the music also contains residues from the sixteenth century, of the tortured relationship between the church and the monarchy about the role in the church of songs, singing, and musical instrumentation. Shape Notes Story gives us the key events in this relationship: the introduction of plainsong to England by St. Augustine and its use and refinement by monks in monasteries across the British isles, the introduction of harmony and counterpoint in church services in the Middle Ages, and their opposition by clergy, who believed that musical complexity was a distraction which diminished the act of worship, and Henry VIII’s edict against harmony, that there could be only one note sung per syllable in the performance of any song. [4]

When the Puritans set sail for America, the performances of music by huge choirs had become fashionable in Europe. In England the aristocracy was commissioning works to be performed for their pleasure alone: in the previous century Parliament had banned music from church services. The Puritans’ feeling about the role of music in the church can be summed up in the choice of music they had with them when they landed in Plymouth. The Book of Psalms: Englished both in Prose and Metre with Annotations [1612] [5] by Henry Ainsworth, Puritan clergyman turned separatist, contained thirty nine psalms which were to be sung, in unison, to about six tunes, with no musical notation, parts, or harmony. Ainsworth’s disregard for melody suited the Puritans‘ ascetic worldview. They even published their own book of English psalmody, The Whole Book of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre [1640], which was also the first book published in English speaking North America.

But the Puritans’ brand of psalmody was forced into decline by the conditions faced by the waves of English migrants that came after them. These new migrants were poorer than their predecessors. Many were illiterate, and very few could read music. They lived in smaller, far more isolated communities, times were harder, and as a result, church services consisted of not much more than what was called lined out singing, as it involved a deacon reciting and then singing a line of text, to which the congregation would respond by repeating the line. Alternatively, psalms were sung from memory, with women and men often barred from singing together. As with musical instrumentation, the folk and popular music forms and traditions these migrants brought with them from Britain were deemed unsuitable for church services by New England clergy.
The decline in church singing was halted only by the emergence of religious fervour that swept across America and Britain in the 1730s. In America this new found religious interest, known as the great awakening, was caused by the explosion of impassioned, itinerant, highly populist preachers, whose tours of open air sermonising had taken religious worship out of the church and onto the American landscape.

At least some of the great awakening’s success could be credited to the hymnody of Isaac Watts, which produced scores of itinerant tunesmiths in Britain and America – copyists, initially, who would nonetheless go on to take religious song-writing from the control of the New England clergy and were, for the first time, writing and publishing hymns outside of its religious institutions. The music of these tunesmiths rebelled against the slow, lugubrious style of colonial congregational singing, and was aimed at the uneducated poor, as well as the rich. And like Watts’ hymns, these tunes were imported to America and proved immensely popular. By the end of the 1700s hundreds of shape note tune books had been published. [6]

Maybe psalm singing and its joyless approach to music faded out of sheer boredom: after sixty hard years, singing gloomy songs with no musical parts, harmony, or instrumentation, must have started to lose its allure, especially in the long dark winters that heightened the migrant’s sense of isolation.

We found an explanation for shape note singing’s appeal in this description by James B. Wallace, Ph.D. candidate in New Testament Studies, in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University, in his text Stormy Banks and Sweet Rivers: A Sacred Harp Geography [2007]; ‘In Sacred Harp music, the tenor part may carry the melody, but each of the other parts (bass, alto, treble) have important roles. Composers also make use of parallel fifths, in which an interval of a fifth is employed consecutively, and Sacred Harp composers consider two notes, often fifths, sufficient for a chord. Sacred Harp music includes unique performance practices. For example, all songs are sung loudly. Participants sing virtually at the top of their voices, though the falling and rising of the leader’s arm can indicate where accents should be placed. Music composed in this style may feature dispersed harmony, in which the parts cross over each other rather than running parallel.’ [7] All of which must have been incredibly life affirming and far more sociable and egalitarian than Puritan psalmody. Additionally, the music’s haunting effect insisted on a vocal interplay between men and women; ‘both the tenor and treble sections include men and women, creating the effect of a six-part, rather than a four-part, harmony,’ [8] – and in doing so turned the church into a social space, a space of community and perhaps even courtship.

The publication of Reverend John Tufts’ The Art of Singing Psalms in the 1720s set the tone for this new enthusiasm for religious singing, which by the 1730s had evolved into a style characterised by the use of three or four part harmonies, and a notation system comprised of four notes illustrated by a triangle, an oval, a square, and a diamond, which represent the four syllables of the diatonic major scale, Fa, Sol, La, Mi, and whose pitch corresponds to the shape of the note. This was, in essence shape note singing, and its religiously minded populist sensibility proved so successful that by the mid to late 1700s shape note tunes were being published in collections of songs suitable for any of the growing contexts of religious worship. B. F. White and E. J. King’s The Sacred Harp, a songbook compilation of shape note music, has remained in continuous use and revision since its publication in 1844. [9]

Shape note music’s mixture of formal simplicity and polyphonic invention demanded musical training. A number of music schools or ‘institutes’ designed to teach and spread the music sprang up in America in the 1700s and soon became early America’s most important musical institution, first in New England, where its popularity produced America’s first school of composers, then, after the Civil War, across the southern and the western states. [10]

In his 2007 essay Distant Roots of Shape Note Music, Keith Willard of Alabama’s Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association, outlines how the migration of ideas about music and religion from England to America impacted on the evolution of shape note singing. Willard traces the precedent for these New England music schools to the singing societies created in England by early eighteenth century reformers who wanted to replace the ‘highly ornamented, irregular, lined out style of psalm singing’ that was prevalent in parishes across the country. [11]

Willard also traces the effect of the migration of shape note schools from New England to America’s rural communities: ‘the tradition widened its melodic scope to include a much richer assortment of folk melodies that had long been part of the oral heritage of the border peoples of northern England, Scotland, Wales and northern Ireland. It encountered the camp meeting music of the second great awakening, and somewhere and when reintroduced the Dorian mode, virtually displacing the Aeolian mode as the minor scale for southern singers. It is during its southern sojourn, that this folkway picked up the forms with which we are now familiar, the all day singing convention, the dinner on the grounds, and the hollow square.’ [12]

Groups such as those featured on the album Religion is a Fortune, with names like Allison’s Sacred Harp Singers, Daniels-Deason Sacred Harp Singers, Lee Well’s Sacred Harp Singers, Denson’s Sacred Harp Singers, the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, the OKeh Atlanta Sacred Harp Singers, and indeed the Pioneer Sacred Harp Singers, all attest to shape note singing’s popularity in the early years of the American phonograph business. Recordings of shape note singing remained popular until the 1950s, by which time shape note singing schools had all but ceased to exist.

And if you were wondering how shape note singing became a part of the American recording industry, here is a word from David Warren Steele, Associate Professor of Music and Southern Culture, University of Mississippi, and author of the sleeve notes to Religion is a Fortune: ‘In the 1920s, when the success of ‘race’ and ‘hillbilly’ recordings demonstrated a demand for traditional artists, it was hardly surprising that sacred harp singers would aspire to make recordings, or that local talent scouts would record them. Several factors may explain why these early recordings tend to reproduce more closely these smaller, informal settings rather than the mass community singing. Early recording methods, especially those employed by portable studios, required that all musicians had to be in roughly the same location, near a single microphone. […] As a result, there was no significant attempt to record a full ‘class’ of singers until 1942, when Alan Lomax and George Pullen Jackson recorded an Alabama convention for the Library of Congress. Earlier recordings of sacred harp music are almost always small groups of three to perhaps twelve singers, and are often accompanied by instruments. Brief songs are often extended by adding additional verses, to fit the optimum length of a ten-inch recording.’ [13]

In the 20th century the tradition survived into the 1990s in the singings and conventions dotted around America and organised by groups like the African American Black Sacred Harp State Convention and the Mississippi Sacred Harp Singers. Fasola keep the tradition alive in the 21st century. The last word, on what to expect from a shape note singing event, goes to them: ‘All events welcome beginners and newcomers, with no musical experience or religious affiliation required — in fact, the tradition was born from colonial ‘singing schools’ whose purpose was to teach beginners to sing and our methods continue to reflect this goal. Though Sacred Harp is not affiliated with any denomination, it is a deeply spiritual experience for all involved, and functions as a religious observance for many singers. Sacred Harp ‘singings’ are not performances. There are no rehearsals and no separate seats for an audience. Every singing is a unique and self-sufficient event with a different group of assembled participants. The singers sit in a hollow square formation with one voice part on each side, all facing inwards so we can see and hear each other. However, visitors are always welcome to sit anywhere in the room and participate as listeners.’ [14]


[1] Religion is a Fortune, reviewed by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr., All Music Guide, 2008 www.emusic.com
[2] ‘What is Sacred Harp singing?’ Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association, 2007, www.fasola.org
[3] ‘Shape Note Story’, www.bidwellhousemuseum.org/Articles/ShapeNotes.htm
[4] ‘Singing the Psalms: A Brief History of Psalmody’, by Richard C. Leonard PhD, Laudemont Ministries www.laudemont.org
[5] www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Ainsworth
[6] ‘Shape-Note Singing Schools’, David Warren Steel. University of Mississippi, in Encyclopaedia of Southern Culture, edited by Wm Ferris and C.R Wilson. University of South Carolina Press. www.arts.state.ms.us/crossroads/music/sacred_harp/mu4_text.html
[7-9] Stormy Banks and Sweet Rivers: A Sacred Harp Geography, by James B. Wallace, Emory University, 2007, www.southernspaces.org
[10] Steel.
[11 & 12] ‘Distant Roots of Shape Note Music’ by Keith Willard via www.fasola.org/introduction/English_Roots.html
[13] ‘An Introduction to Sacred Harp Singing’ by David Warren Steel, in Goodbye, Babylon www.dust-digital.com
[14] ‘What is Sacred Harp singing?’ Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association 2007 via http://www.fasola.org
[15] ‘Mississippi’s African American Shape Note Tradition’, by Chiquita Walls www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~mudws/articles/walls.html



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