Monday, January 30, 2012

New Salem: Reading shape notes, "Amazing Grace," and lining out hymns at Rock Creek campground ** w/ UPDATE**

UPDATE: The Smithsonian Institution published a 16-page "Shape-Note Singing Lesson" in October 2000 as part of the Smithsonian in Your Classroom series. It is available on line as a PDF file. Designed for use by elementary school teachers and incorporating learning standards for grades 3-8, it is also entirely suitable for adults who want to learn the music.

At this month's workshop on music appropriate to our period at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site, we'll take up two songs - both in Ionian or DAA tuning - and learn a little bit about the way people in New Salem would have sung religious music.

The first song is The Devil's Nine Questions. You can hear it on YouTube, in an audio file with still pictures, as performed on "American Songs of Revolutionary Times & the Civil War Era" - an LP featuring songs by Jean Ritchie and Paul Clayton, and storytelling by folklorist Richard Chase. There are several video clips of a slightly different version (which matches the one in Ralph Lee Smith's "Tunes and Tales of the Wilderness Road," by the way, for those of you who have Ralph's book.

Most of the songs that we know were sung at New Salem, or west central Illinois, during our period are religious. And many of them are in The Online Southern Harmony - it's an 1835 shape-note hymn book (updated in 1853 and republished in facsimile several years ago by the University Press of Kentucky) and a wonderful source of music from our period, in the Online Southern Harmony on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library website. I'll link you to a directory of songs in the Southern Harmony, with links below to a recording of some of the more popular pieces at the "Big Singing" several years ago in Benton, Ky. The CCEL website also has the introduction to the UK edition by Harry Eskew, a scholar on shape-note hymnody who comes to it from the perspective of singing in the tradition.

Songs in Southern Harmony with specific ties to New Salem, camp meetings and churches in Menard County, Abraham Lincoln's family, the Rev. Peter Cartwright and/or singing schools in the Sangamon River country include Old Hundred (22t), Idumea (32t), The Promised Land (51), Green Fields (71), Legacy (73), Pisgah (80), Romish Lady (82), The Saint's Delight (104), Hail Columbia (141), Bound for Canaan (193t), The Morning Trumpet (195t), The Saints Bound for Heaven (258), Plenary (262), Hebrew Children (266) and Coronation (299). I'll bring copies of Old Hundred with the words to Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Concord Hymn" that I made for the Fourth of July at New Salem a couple of years ago. It's the poem we all memorized in junior high school that begins "By the rude bridge that arched the flood, / Their flag of April's breeze unfurled," and Emerson wrote it for the dedication of a monment to the Battle of Concord in 1836. So it fits our period.

Reading shape notes couldn't be any easier. Here are the shapes (reproduced with permission of Ottawa Shape Note Chorus) at

And here are the corresponding positions on the fretboard. "Fa" (the tonic) is on the third fret

Southern Harmony also has the original version of New Britain, or "Amazing Grace" ... audio and video clips of several versions are linked or embedded below. In recent years, "Amazing Grace" has suffered from any number of sweetened-up, New Age-y arrangements, and the melody has lost some of its original character from the Anglo-Celtic oral tradition.

But in the 1960s Mrs. Edd Presnell played "Amazing Grace" the old way on one of her husband's dulcimers for an LP called Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians. Her version of the melody is the same as in Southern Harmony, and she plays the dulcimer as it used to be played before the folk revival. The CD is a classic recording, collected in North Carolina and Virginia, and it's available for download at There are 30-second audio clips, but you may want to get the whole album. It has fiddle, guitar and banjo versions of a lot of the songs we can play at New Salem, like "Cripple Creek," "Soldier's Joy," "Pretty Polly" and "Sourwood Mountain," including Nettie Presnell's dulcimer versions of "Shady Grove" and "Sally Goodin," both of which also fit our period at New Salem.

A shape-note version of Amazing Grace" (New Britain) at a traditional Sacred Harp singing convention in Holly Springs, Ga., in 1982. Notice how they sing the fa-sol-la shapes before moving on to the lyrics.

Lining out is a very old tradition in singing religious music. It dates back to the 1640s in England, when hymnals were scarce, and it was just about universal during the 1830s. (See below for details on Rock Creek campground.) The video clip embedded here is from a recent Primitive Baptist church meeting in Kentucky. The hand-shaking is a ritual at the close of worship services sometimes known as extending the "right hand of fellowship." Primitive Baptists, who choose that name because they wish to recreate the spirit of the primitive Christian church of the first century, are deeply conservative; often they cherish "lining out" as part of their unique religious heritage, even if it's not practiced now as much as it used to be. So lined-out hymnody continues to be a living spiritual tradition. When I demonstrate it in talks and performances at living history sites, I always try to keep that in mind.

The singing in religious services at New Salem would have sounded a lot like that in the YouTube clip. Writing in the 1920s, old settler Alice Keach Bone described the singing at Rock Creek campground like this:
Prominent among the preachers on the platform was Rev. John
M. Berry. He would give out the hymn, read it, line it, and, in
a strong voice, lead the singing himself, the people joining in
one after another.

'On Jordan's stormy banks I stand,' and 'How firm a foundation,
ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent
word' were favorites. These were frequently followed by
'There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel's veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.'
Then came an earnest, heartfelt prayer and, sometimes, another
song. After this he announced the text and began to preach. He
did not time his sermons, neither did the people turn uneasy glances
toward their camps. (Bone 31-32)
When Rev. Berry (whose son was Abraham Lincoln's parnter in what we call the Berry-Lincoln stores) "lined" the hymn, he would have chanted in the same manner as a Primitive Baptist elder in our day. There's more about Rock Creek, Rev. Berry and lined-out hymn singing in my paper on the subject, "American Folk Hymnody in Illinois, 1800-1850." While my focus was wider, the paper relies heavily on county histories and other old settlers' accounts from the vicinity of New Salem and Menard County. There's an exhaustive (exhausting?) discussion of the background of lined-out hymnody, too, and a list of 109 works cited in the bibliography.

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