Kentucky Shape-Note Singing

Festivals, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on April 14, 2002

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!

The hymn was wonderfully familiar, soothing to the soul like a memory of Eden or a preview of the Promised Land, but the harmony was different. And the 100 voices that rose in joyful unison this day were singing only notes, not words, because this was only practice. When the real rendition rang out inside the Marshall County Courthouse moments later, the singers echoed a tradition dating back to America’s youth.

It was the annual Big Singing in Benton, Ky., held every fourth Sunday in May since 1884. And the once-popular singing style, known to many as Southern Harmony, or shape-note singing, is anything but common now.

The nearly forgotten vocal style was popularized in the 1800s by William Walker, a traveling music teacher whose book, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, was published in Connecticut in 1835. In it, the notes of every song are indicated by shapes: triangle, oval, rectangle, and diamond for fa, sol, la, and mi, respectively. Walker wasn’t the first or only American to use shape notes, but his book sold more than 600,000 copies, making it, perhaps, the most popular songbook ever printed.

The book was embraced by Benton (pop. 4,197) in the 1850s, when a settler brought it with him from North Carolina. At the time, Benton was rather isolated—so the result, for Southern Harmony, is a pure, unaltered version of how hymns were sung as early as the 18th century.

Southern Harmony is sung with only four notes—as opposed to the common do-re-mi scale of eight notes—so even such well-known hymns as Amazing Grace or Rock of Ages, sound different than the contemporary versions.

“The harmonies are rather unique,” says Gene Gilliland, a local preacher. “We have people from all over the country and from some other nations that come each year because of the unique harmonization.”

Shape-note singing was developed in the 1700s to make it easier to read music. The shape notes, while positioned on the page in the same manner as the “roundheads,” aid sight-reading by providing another way of recognizing when to sing a particular note.

Benton still observes the Big Singing every year. Like the original program, a warm-up session begins at 10:30 a.m., followed by a community picnic lunch. The afternoon is spent celebrating Southern Harmony, with more than 100 people joining in.

“It’s a pleasurable day, meeting with people from all over everywhere, making new friends,” says Bonnie Myers, a member of the Society for the Preservation of Southern Harmony Singing, which sponsors the event and meets quarterly to ensure the program continues. “And, you know, we sing all day long on Big Singing day. It’s just a fun, old-fashioned gathering.”

Beyond the human voice, no instruments are used. To further simplify the process, bass, lead, and alto singers sit separately. Traditionally, men take turns leading songs, while audience members sing along.

And Benton’s Big Singing participants still follow Walker’s pattern of singing first “by the note” and then “by the line.” This allows singers to familiarize themselves with the sound of the piece before singing the actual words.

“It’s kind of humorous for people that haven’t been exposed to it before, because it sounds like we’re singing in tones. First we sing the notes—the fa-sol-la—instead of the words,” Gilliland says.

In 1973, about 50 Benton singers performed at the Smithsonian Institution’s American Folklife Festival in Washington, D. C. Three years later, during the nation’s bicentennial, the Big Singing was recognized by the National Music Council (NMC) as a “Landmark of American Music.” The event is “the oldest indigenous musical tradition in the United States,” reads a bronze plaque from the NMC, now proudly displayed in the Marshall County Courthouse where the Big Singing is held.

“This is the only place in the world now that sings Southern Harmony (exclusively),” says Frank Nichols, president of the society. Nichols has missed only a few Big Singings in 72 years. His 99-year-old mother, Tula Nichols, still attends the gala dressed in her Sunday best, complete with wide-brimmed hat.

And the rest of the town looks forward to the singing with just as much anticipation, Nichols says. “We think it is very important, and we want to preserve it as long as we can.”