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Shape-note singers gather in Raleigh for Sacred Harp Convention

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Fa-So-La, with the occasional Mi: The relationship of these four notes, and the shapes assigned to each one, are the basis for shape-note singing, as I learned last weekend at the North Carolina Sacred Harp Convention in Raleigh.

Think Julie Andrews and "Doe, a deer, a female deer," but not exactly. The Von Trapps were accompanied by dad on the guitar; shape-note singing is a cappella. And where Maria taught the kids to sing using a seven-note system with examples that weren't religious, traditional shape-note singing employs just the four notes. There's no "Doe," "Ray" or "Tea." (But there is a potluck luncheon, so you can BYO jam and bread.) And all the words are directed to God.

If it sounds simple enough, it is, though sight-reading shape notes isn't a whole lot easier than sight-reading ordinary music. The idea of the circle, triangle, square and diamond is that if you know how Fa (the triangle) is supposed to sound after someone sets the pitch for you, you'll know how the next note up (So, the circle) and the next note (La, the square) ought to sound. Mi, the rarest note, is a diamond. Then it's back to Fa-So-La.

I think I got that right. In any case, here's the key thing to know about shape-note singing: You don't have to know anything. Just listen, catch the tune and use your shower voice when you can.

On Saturday, I arrived at the convention—"the public is invited," the website said—to find that there was really no convention at all. There were no speeches, no committee meetings, not even an introduction to the style. When shape-note singers get together, they sing. If you have no idea what you're doing, you sing, too. It's called a convention because once a year, shape-note singers from Raleigh, Durham, Winston-Salem and other places with their own small shape-note groups convene somewhere. This year, they met at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church.

Despite the religious bent, shape-note singing is first and foremost a social rather than a worship practice, dating back to when communities were established by churches, and everything you did was dedicated to Him. The point isn't prayer. It's to have fun.

There's no "rehearsal" in shape-note singing, and you don't worry about making mistakes. If you don't know the tune and you can't sight-read (and a lot of folks on Saturday couldn't), you just seat yourself next to somebody who does know it and follow the lead. "We sing the same songs over and over. That's how you learn them," says Lynda Hambourger, the convention chair.

By the way, Hambourger was elected in a vote that lasted no more than a minute. An academic adviser at N.C. State, she's been shape-singing for 25 years, starting with the folk revival that helped bring it back to life. She'd been at it for a decade, she said, before something clicked and she realized she'd somehow learned to sight-read.

I don't know anything about shape-note singing when I arrive. I simply take an empty seat. As it turns out, I'm with the basses. We sit on one side of an open square, facing the sopranos. Altos are on our left, tenors to our right. Tenors sing the lead. The rest sing other notes, near as I could tell. There are about 60 of us altogether.

Each song has a leader, someone who comes to the center of the square—you sign up in advance—and announces, "No. 87." We turn to No. 87, "Sweet Canaan," in our Sacred Harp hymnals, 1991 edition. The leader previews the tune with us, using Fa-So-La's. Then we begin again, singing the words.

The original Sacred Harp was published in 1844, my hymnal tells me, "by patriarchs who advised to seek the old paths and walk therein." It's been revised just five times since, and almost every shape-note group uses it. As I learn over the potluck lunch, it was developed in reaction to "European music," or as the early patriarchs contemptuously called it, "Better Music" written by the likes of J. S. Bach, with all those complexities and citified ways. Sweet gospel music, sure, but it was too sweet for some rural folk.

Music in the Sacred Harp, by contrast, sticks to uncomplicated three-part and four-part harmonies and easy-to-sing rounds (same words, different start times), which really do sound great when all four sides of the square reach the finish in unison.

"What catches people is the sound—that raw, loud sound," Hambourger tells me during a break. "You walk in the room and you hear a wall of harmonized sound. In a church choir, you're trying to blend. Here, you're enjoying yourself."

Tim Hambourger, Lynda's son, is a graduate student in music composition at Duke. He says the appeal of shape-note singing has a lot to do with "open fifths." These are the chords you play across five keys on the piano with your thumb, middle finger and pinkie finger, except that the middle note is omitted. Open fifths, he says, have a "stark" quality that appealed to folks who preferred simplicity to the pursuit of worldly pleasures.

It appealed to me, too. I don't sight-read, but I can hit a low note when I hear it coming, or—to be honest—when I hear what the tenors are singing to my right. There was nothing complicated about my performance. The Sacred Harp scene doesn't have a new star. I only threw in every 10th note or so. But I sang 'em loud.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Just sing."

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