Thursday, January 15, 2015

Prairieland-Clayville jams: Some notes on HOLY MANNA, and some more notes on shape notes

We made such a good start Thursday night on HOLY MANNA, also known by its first line "Brethren, we have met to worship," I went home and found a couple of performances on YouTube.

Chords in D are available on line at A great big Stetson-sized hat tip to Fred and Judy for finding the chords and lyrics -- and in the right key!

The song comes from the shape-note tradition, and it is commonly sung as the opening song at shape-note singing events.(See information from Wikipedia below.) But it is also a favorite bluegrass gospel number. A couple of clips:

The Gospel Plowboys - Brethren We Have Met to Worship. Video (c) Carol McDuffie, Lovin' Bluegrass YouTube Ministry. Gospel Plowboys are a bluegrass gospel group based in Safe Harbor Baptist Church, in Salisbury, N.C.

Two other gospel arrangements we can pick up ideas from:

All of these bluegrass arrangements are pretty close to the spirit of the original. It's an old, old song, and the modern groups that come closest to it are Primitive Baptist gospel quartets (with extra instruments) down South like the Gospel Plowboys.

Wikipedia, per usual, has the most authoritative brief overview. It's one of the oldest published American folk hymns. The lyrics were written by George Atkins and first published in 1819. HOLY MANNA, the tune, is "a pentatonic melody in Ionian mode originally published by William Moore in Columbian Harmony, a four-note shape-note tunebook, in 1829. Like most shape-note songs from that century, it is usually written in three parts." Our arrangement, which we have licensed from Steve Eulberg, is in three parts. It's in a collection of Steve's that features shape-note tunes from Southern Harmony (1835).

Wayne Seymour, a folk musician, storyteller and composer of North Carolina -- wrote an article for Mel Bay's Dulcimer Sessions at with a different arrangement of HOLY MANNA, also from the version in Southern Harmony.

Seymour has some good advice on how to play it authentically. He's writing for mountain dulcimer, but music is music and what he says will work for other instruments, too:

There are a couple of things that make shape note music interesting to me on the mountain dulcimer. First , the harmonies are usually based on an interval of a 5th (Five notes distance in pitch between one note and another.) This is the same interval that we use in most common dulcimer tunings. (From D to A, for example.)

Second, in traditional shape note singing, the tenors carried the melody. There was a bass line, and women sang a part that was simply called "treble" since it was neither a conventional alto nor soprano part. This is quite a different arrangement from the usual soprano, alto, tenor, bass harmonies that dominate not only hymns, but a lot of secular music as well. As a result, the harmonies tended to be "droney.” What better fit could there be for a mountain dulcimer!

The tunes go slowly, but with a definite VERY strong rhythm. There should be strong emphasis or "punch" on the first beat of each measure and a detectable emphasis on the third beat. Stum across all three strings for the melody, and don’t let the melody get lost in the drone.

Why is it called shape-note music? Here's the original from Southern Harmony at The melody (called the "lead") is in the middle line. The top line is a high harmony part called the "treble," and the bottom is the bass. Some people think (and I'm one of them) bluegrass harmony comes from the three-part harmony of the old shape note tradition. See how different notes of the scale have different shapes? That's why we call the shape notes.

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