South Carolina's Lost Art: Shape-Note Music

Robert T. Kelley
Lander University
April 10, 2008

Guido D'Arezzo, ca. 990--1050

Invented the Western system of solmization (Solfège).


The use of a system of syllables, especially "sol-fa" syllables, to represent the tones of the scale, independent of their absolute pitch.

Guido's Hand

Compare to modern hand symbols for solfege

Ut Queant Laxis

Book discussing the origins of Guido's solfège chant

Guido's Gamut

Three Modern Western Systems of Solmization

Ut queant laxis,
Resonare fibris,
Mira gestorum,
Famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti,
Labii reatum,
Sancte Iohannes.

iiii  i
aee  ee


Musical Example

The Old Hundredth Psalm Tune sung in four different historical settings

Example 1, from the Genevan Psalter 1551
Example 2, from Johann Sebastian Bach's four-part chorales, R.164
Example 3, from a modern shape-note hymnal
Example 4, in the singing-school tradition from The Sacred Harp

William Billings (1746--1800), American Singing-Master

Musical Example of Billings's "Chester"

A Singing School

Lowell Mason (1792--1872), proponent of European music

Musical Example of Mason's "Shawmut"

"Camp Meeting"

by Alexander Rider, ca. 1832
Lithograph, 12 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.

Camp meetings helped to keep the American hymn tradition alive,
along with Shape-Note notation, invented around 1800

The Evolution of Shape Notes

Excerpt from the Bay Psalme Book, Boston, 1698
The first (music) book published in the New World

The 1698 edition included tunes with solfege initials given below each note.

The Rev. John Tufts' An Introduction to the Singing of Psalm-Tunes in a Plain & Easy Method, ca. 1721

Replaced note heads with solfege initials. Made rhythm almost impossible to represent.

Wm. Little and Wm. Smith, The Easy Instructor, 1801

The first tunebook to use Philadelphia shopkeeper John Connolly's (1790) "patent notes"
p. 31 of The Easy Instructor

Andrew Law, The Musical Primer, 1803

Andrew Law removed the staff lines, but his idea didn't catch on.
Law also claimed to have invented his notation system first, before Little & Smith.
To read this interesting story, see
"Andrew Law and the Pirates", by Irving Lowens
Andrew Law, American Psalmodist, by Richard Crawford

South Carolinian Singing-Master William "Singin' Billy" Walker, ASH (1809--1875)

South Carolinian Singing-Master Maj. Benjamin Franklin White (1800--1879)

The Southern Harmony, 1835, South Carolina's tunebook

Walker and White collaborated in compiling this enormously successful book

White's name does not appear anywhere in the book.
According to Joe S. James, Walker and White never spoke again, and White moved to Georgia.

The Sacred Harp, 1844, compiled by B. F. White

This book was also enormously successful.

The Christian Harmony, 1866, Walker's second tunebook (7 shapes)

There is a continuous singing tradition in NC using this book

Clip from the motion picture Cold Mountain

Clip from the motion picture Amazing Grace

Wilberforce Sings Amazing Grace

Book giving the history of the hymn (Faith's Review and Expectation) and tune (New Britain) of Amazing Grace

The Library of Congress's Amazing Grace Timeline with Musical Examples

Olney's Hymns, by John Newton, title page

Faith's Review and Expectation, by John Newton

The Columbian Harmony, 1829, title page

First book in which the tune now associated with Amazing Grace appears

Gallaher, from The Columbian Harmony tune in the tenor voice

St Mary's, from The Columbian Harmony tune in the tenor voice

The Virginia Harmony, 1831, title page

Harmony Grove, from The Virginia Harmony, tune in the tenor

The Southern Harmony, 1835, title page

New Britain, from The Southern Harmony

This is the first time the tune and words to Amazing Grace were paired (thanks, Singin' Billy!)

Recording of New Britain

Camp DoReMi

Local Singings:

Monthly Sacred Harp Class
First Christian Church, Greenville, SC

Bimonthly Christian Harmony Class
Lawrence Chapel Methodist Church, near Clemson, SC

Monthly Sacred Harp Class
St. Michael's Anglican Church, Charlotte, NC

Monthly Christian Harmony Class
Calvary Episcopal Church, Fletcher, North Carolina

Monthly Christian Harmony and Sacred Harp Class
1574 Adams-Clarke Rd, Ila, GA (near Athens)


Local Singings: (All singings in SC and Western NC) (Charlotte NC area Singings) (Singings in Athens area listed here)
Singing Schools: (Camp DoReMi in Western NC) (Camp Fasola in Anniston AL)
Singing School in Ila, GA (near Athens), September 20, 2008
Amy Golightly Walker Singing School, October 11, 2008, Old St. John's, Rutherfordton NC ~ mudws/schools.html (Other singing schools)
General Information on Shape-Note Singing:
Information Presented in This Lecture:

Other Resources:


Solfege Hand Symbols:

Sacred Harp Documentary and Teaching Films:

Sweet is the Day:,44

Awake My Soul:

Teach Me Some Melodious Sonnet: A Sacred Harp Singing School taught by Elder J. L. Hopper

On the Oral Tradition of the Singing School and All-Day Singing with Dinner on the Ground:

Kiri Miller. 2004. ''First Sing the Notes': Oral and Written Traditions in Sacred Harp." American Music 22/4: 475-501.
A Sacred Feast: Reflections on Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground by Kathryn Eastburn University of Nebraska Press.

Books on Shape-Note Singing in General:

White spirituals in the southern uplands; the story of the fasola folk, their songs, singings, and "buckwheat notes." by George Pullen Jackson Type: Book; English Publisher: New York, Dover Publications [1965]
AUTHOR=Charles Linwood Ellington, TITLE=The Sacred Harp Tradition of the South: Its Origin and Evolution, SCHOOL=The Florida State University, YEAR=1969, Type=Ph.D. diss.
AUTHOR=Dorothy D. Horn, TITLE=Sing to Me of Heaven: A Study of Folk and Early American Materials in Three Old Harp Books, PUBLISHER=University of Florida Press, YEAR=1970, ADDRESS=Gainesville, Invis=ISBN: 0813002931 9780813002934, OCLC: 122941
AUTHOR=Buell E. Cobb, Jr., TITLE=The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music, PUBLISHER=University of Georgia Press, 1989, YEAR=1978, Address=Athens, Invis=OCLC: 2966090,
Public worship, private faith : sacred harp and American folksong by John Bealle Type: Book; English Publisher: Athens : University of Georgia Press, ©1997.

On the Compositional Style and Theory of Harmony in Sacred Harp and Early American Hymnody:

Contrapuntal Style in the Three-Voice Shape-Note Hymns Charles Seeger The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Oct., 1940), pp. 483-493 Seeger Musical Quarterly Article is also in a collection of his essays called Studies in Musicology:
AUTHOR=Dorothy D. Horn, TITLE=Quartal Harmony in the Pentatonic Folk Hymns of the Sacred Harps, JOURNAL=The Journal of American Folklore YEAR=1958, Volume=71/282, Pages=564-581
AUTHOR=Wallace McKenzie, TITLE=The Alto Parts in the "True Dispersed Harmony" of "The Sacred Harp" Revisions, JOURNAL=The Musical Quarterly, YEAR=1989, Volume=73/2, Pages=153-171

Music for Shape-Note Lecture

  1. Old Hundredth, from the Genevan Psalter 1551
  2. Old Hundredth, Bach Chorale
  3. Old Hundredth, from Songs of Faith and Praise
  4. Old Hundredth, from The Sacred Harp
  5. Ut Queant Laxis (hymn to John the Baptist), men only
  6. 479 Chester, by William Billings
  7. 535 Shawmut, by Lowell Mason
  8. Gallaher, from Columbian Harmony 1829
  9. St. Mary's, from Columbian Harmony 1829
  10. Harmony Grove, from Virginia Harmony 1831
  11. New Britain, from Southern Harmony 1835
  12. 218 Mount Pleasant, from The Sacred Harp