The singers sat in a loose square, facing one another in the faintly musty-smelling vestry of the First Congregational Church in Belfast. They were there, bundled up in sweaters and scarves, to participate in an evening of shape-note singing, a vocal tradition that stretches back to Revolutionary War days.
The singers were organized into vocal ranges, corresponding roughly to tenor, bass, alto and soprano. Two singers, Bobbie Goodell and Sumner Roberts, kept time by raising their hands up and down, and each singer looked on at several copies of a long, brown book, “The Sacred Harp,” similar to hymnals seen in churches all over the world. The sound made from just 10 people was warm and surprisingly harmonic.
“It’s a nice sound even in a small group. I’ve sung anywhere and everywhere, in an elevator, in parking lots, in a van going down the road. It’s beautiful just to sing, wherever you are,” said Goodell, a Belfast resident who has sung in shape-note groups for years throughout New England, as well as with the Down East Singers. “But now imagine it with 100, 200, 500 people. It’s overwhelming.”
Shape-note singing, a uniquely American phenomenon, has existed virtually unchanged since the late 18th century, as far as its notation and repertoire is concerned. The Sacred Harp book consists of hundreds of traditional Christian Protestant songs, many of which were written by figures such as William Billings and B.F. White, that have been transcribed into four easy-to-understand “shapes” — a triangle for “fa,” a circle for “sol,” a square for “la” and a diamond for “mi.”
“The idea of shape notes goes way back, to around 1000 A.D.,” said Roberts, a farmer and longtime shape-note enthusiast, who lives in Swanville. “But the American tradition comes out of the late 18th century. The first book was published around the turn of the 19th century.”
Originally, the idea was to allow uneducated folks in rural regions access to music, without the need for training or instrumental accompaniment.
“Training almost goes against the tradition, because originally this was music for people with little to no musical education,” said Goodell. “It was for people out in the boonies, who wanted to make pretty music.”
Today, it’s practiced in churches throughout the southern U.S., and it is enjoying an ongoing revival in both sacred and secular settings in the Northeast — especially in western Massachusetts, where the Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Community holds singings that regularly attract upward of several hundred people. Dick Sanner, who recently moved to Surry, became involved in shape-note singing through the groups in western part of the Bay State.
“I grew up in the South, in Knoxville and Atlanta, and I was always aware of it,” said Sanner. “Then, when I lived in Massachusetts, in Wellesley, I became involved in the various singings they’d have throughout New England. I reconnected with the tradition.”
While it’s more secular in nature in the Northeast, in the South it’s another story. Just as other churches sing from a hymnal or have musical accompaniment, the shape-note tradition exists in its original form in churches throughout the rural South — though very often those churches use the seven-note system, as opposed to the four-note system used by shape-note singers in the Northeast.
“Down South is where it still lives,” said Sanner. “It’s serious music down there. It’s very religious. The music is wonderful. They live it.”
Though it’s an established part of the American cultural landscape, shape-note singing has also recently enjoyed a bit of a cool factor. The critically acclaimed 2008 documentary, “Awake, My Soul,” did much to popularize it among indie rock and folk fans. It holds sway over younger people, who relish its authenticity, and the sense of community it represents. It’s not religious, though the songs are. It’s the simple joy of getting together to sing.
“Half of them are under the age of 30, out in western Mass. There are all kinds of college students,” said Goodell. “Shape note has really inundated that area. It’s a phenomenon.”
Singings in Maine don’t boast numbers as high, but there are devoted practitioners all over the state. Groups in Damariscotta, Waterville, Sullivan and Portland, as well as the Belfast group, meet monthly. Sometimes there are just four or five people; sometimes there are as many as 30. They come out of the woodwork to sing.
“We keep hearing about these mythical groups,” said Goodell. “There were folks from Tenants Harbor who hadn’t sung in 20 years, who came up to sing with us.”
The opportunity to participate in a large singing is one that any avid shape-note singer would travel miles to have. Stand in the middle of a crowd of hundreds of people, all singing loudly, proudly and joyfully, and you’d be hard-pressed to remain unmoved.
“Some people can’t stand the sound of it, it’s so enormous,” said Goodell. “It’s incredible. You feel as though you’re being raised up off the floor.”
“Some are in tears, the sound is so huge,” said Sanner. “It’s truly remarkable.”
The whole point of shape-note is not about being a wonderful, trained singer, or about demonstrating years spent learning the material you’re singing. It’s about making a joyful noise.
“It’s just about getting together for the fun of singing,” said Goodell. “It doesn’t matter what your voice sounds like, or how well-trained you are. You just make a big, beautiful sound.”
The Belfast shape-note group meets at 7 p.m. the second Monday of each month. For more information on other groups in Maine and around the country, visit www.fasola.org.