Shape Note Singers at 2nd Berry-Lincoln in August
By Pete Ellertsen
Next month the New Salem Shape Note Singers will return to New Salem’s historic village. Started in 1995 by interpreters at Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site, we have sung more often at other venues in recent years, but we’re scheduled to sing from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2, in the Second Berry-Lincoln Store.
For visitors, and for other interpreters, it will be a chance to hear a living musical tradition with its roots in the singing schools and camp meetings of the early 19th century. For the folks we hope will join us for a song or two (or the rest of the day!), it will be a chance to take part in an ancient and still-living tradition. Beginners are welcome.
We’ll start at 10 with a brief “singing school,” at which experienced singers will explain how to sing in the shape-note tradition, and we’ll have loaner books available. We use “The Sacred Harp,” published continuously in Georgia since 1844, and a recent revision of “The Missouri Harmony.” We know the Rutledge family had a copy, and young Abraham Lincoln sang from it along with Anne, Robert and the other Rutledge youngsters.
Among our songs are several that were sung at Rock Creek campground, including “How firm a foundation” and “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand.” Others are associated with the Rev. Peter Cartwright, the circuit rider of Pleasant Plains who visited New Salem so often when he wasn’t out riding the circuit.
There’s something about the old songs that brings the past to life.
I’ll never forget the time 12 years ago, when we sang an old camp meeting song that has been attributed to Peter Cartwright while were strolling in the village next to Sam Hill’s Store.
As we sang the old, repetitive verses, “Where are the Hebrew children? Where are the Hebrew children? Where are the Hebrew children? Safe in the promised land,” I couldn’t help thinking that Cartwright had loafed and traded wisecracks at Hill’s store more than 150 years ago, and now visitors to the site were hearing a song Cartwright had led.
I can’t explain why, but it felt almost as if the one of the “Southern uplanders” we read about in the history books had come back to New Salem for a couple of minutes. By that time I’d read Cartwright’s “Autobiography,” and I’d begun to study the shape-note songbook arrangers and the modal Scots-Irish harmonies that went into their the folk hymns they collected. But actually hearing it sung, the song came alive.
In the Sacred Harp tradition that we follow, the New Salem Shape Note Singers have a method for reaching back in time, and learning ways of singing that predate the earliest sound recordings in the 1920s. You don’t always get that with other types of music.
The tradition even helped me find out more about Peter Cartwright: It was from an older edition of “The Sacred Harp” that I learned of his association with “Where are the Hebrew children?”
According to a footnote by Joseph James of Douglasville, Ga., editor of the 1911 edition, attributes the tune to Cartwright between 1820 and 1825, about the time he moved from Kentucky to Illinois. “The original name of the above tune was ‘Where Now Are the Hebrew Children.’ Peter Cartwright was a minister of the gospel, and he used this tune in his camp meetings long before it was ever placed in notation. It is one of the old melodies of America, and has a long time been quite a favorite of many of the older people in their younger days who are now living. Peter Cartwright was born in Amherst county, Va., 1785, and died in Sangamond [sic] county, Ill., 1872. It was first published in the Sacred Harp of [B.F.] White and [E.J.] King, 1844.”
While more recent research has corrected inaccuracies in some of his footnotes, Joe James was a Southern country lawyer of a scholarly bent. (Think of Gregory Peck’s character Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” or U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C.) As often in fact as in legend, the old country lawyers truly were scholars. And in this case, I’m convinced James picked up on an oral tradition dating from Cartwright’s early days as a circuit rider in the southern Appalachians.
Another account of Cartwright, and one that James probably consulted, is in “The Story of the Hymns and Tunes” (1906), by Theron Brown and Hezekiah Butterworth. Here’s what they say about Peter Cartwright and his song about the Hebrew children:
“A strange, wild paean of exultant song was one often heard from Peter Cartwright, the muscular circuit-preacher. A remembered fragment shows its quality:
Then my soul mounted higher“There is a tradition that he sang it over a stalwart blacksmith while chastising him for an ungodly defiance and assault in the course of one of his gospel journeys -- and that the defeated blacksmith became his friend and follower.”
In a chariot of fire,
And the moon it was under my feet.
There’s a lot more about the song in Brown and Butterworth, who say it “was a favorite at ancient camp-meetings, and a good leader could keep it going in a congregation or a happy group of vocalists, improvising a new start-line after every stop until his memory or invention gave out.” But I think they got ahold of a couple of legends about Cartwright that were handed down by oral tradition. I’ve seen a story similar to the one about the blacksmith in a history of early Midwestern camp meetings, except in that version, it was a saloonkeeper he fought and it was the old hymn “Coronation” (beginning “All hail the power of Jesus’ name …”) that Cartwright sang as he was beating him up.
Lincoln is not the only person around New Salem who gave rise to legends, and singing the old songs is one way to breathe life into the old legends. We promise we won’t beat up any blacksmiths when the New Salem Shape Note Singers gather Aug. 2 in Second Berry-Lincoln, but we will recreate an ancient art form that goes back to New Salem, Rock Creek campground and frontier days in Illinois.
A footnote about a footnote. I quoted from the 1976 edition of The Original Sacred Harp, which incorporates James' footnotes. They were not included in the "Denson book," i.e. the 1991 Denson Revision of The Sacred Harp currently in use. Brown and Butterworth are quoted in full on "Where are the Hebrew children" elsewhere on this blog.