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“Heaven’s Really Gonna Shine”: African American Note Singing in the New South

“Heaven’s Really Gonna Shine”: African American Note Singing in the New South was a thesis completed for my M.A. degree in history from the University of West Georgia. It investigates a particular form of shape-note singing still practiced by a small group in West Georgia.




From the introduction:

On select Sundays of the year in rural west Georgia, a scattering of Baptist and Methodist churches that bear familiar names like Zion, Prospect or Bethel play host to a style of a capella singing that coaxes an assortment of sounds out of an amalgamation of seven shapes in place of the more familiar round note heads. The African American group that fills the pews on those days, the United Shape Note Singers, practices what is variously referred to as ‘year-book,’ ‘little book,’ ‘convention book,’ ‘seven-note’ or simply ‘note’ singing. Throughout the year, the group travels as far north as Rome and as far south as Macon to gather at different churches, continuing a tradition of community fellowship and harmony-filled singing based on shape-notes.

Developed as an easier alternative to teach sight-reading, the shape-note system of notation has origins in eighteenth century New England singing schools. However, throughout the nineteenth century, it spread to the rural South and West where it gained enthusiastic support, bolstered by a network of singing conventions and songbook publishers. Preferences for certain notation styles and differing views on the incorporation of new musical forms into existing traditions led to the development of several different styles, meaning that the United Shape Note Singers exist amidst various other groups that employ shape-notes for their singings. Sacred Harp singers remain faithful to a four-shape system and a sound that is not too far removed from the solemn – often referred to as ‘haunting’ – style found in New England’s pre-Revolutionary-era churches. Other white groups add instrumental accompaniment to their voices and incorporate modern gospel influences into a seven-shape system of notation. Although these groups often share similar source material and have histories that sometimes move parallel to one another, the African American take on note singing represented by the United Shape Note Singers that took shape in the years after the Civil War and developed into a widespread cultural activity in the early twentieth century represents a unique blend of gospel energy, spiritual reverence and shape-note skill. Partly performance, partly participatory, but mostly a deeply personal musical and religious celebration, the singing was an integral part of both spiritual and social life for African American communities in the South throughout the early twentieth century. Post-Emancipation, a growing middle class turned to shape-note songbooks and singing conventions for entertainment. These singers took white-penned material and transformed it into a useful spiritual celebration for an African American community that continued to evolve throughout the twentieth century. As the community evolved, so too did the nature of the singing. What once was a group and performance-based activity has moved into the realm of the personal, yet the singing of shape-notes has remained relevant to the participants throughout all the changes.