Not long ago, I had the sad mission of attending the graveside service for the husband of a friend. The service was held at a hill top cemetery located above the small village of Singers Glen in western Rockingham County Va. A preacher from the church located at the bottom of the hill soothed our hearts and minds by playing his guitar and singing the comforting melodies and words of those old tried and true gospel songs that we know so well.
As I was leaving this small hamlet scattered around the crossing of two country roads, I focused on the village’s name, Singers Glen. No, it wasn’t named for the fine tenor voice of that preacher man but rather because the village was the home of a German Mennonite music book publisher by the name of Joseph Funk.
Being there in Singers Glen, and participating in such a sad passing that was soothed by gospel music, I realized that this music had not much changed from its 19th century counterparts, and it caused me, while in my melancholy mood, to become curious about this Joseph Funk.
Funk’s Singing School
Joseph Funk is well known as an early publisher of shape note song books and operator of a singing school that taught students to sing using the shape note technique. What follows is the story of this shape note singing—a true Americana music experience.
In an essay found on the web site: (smithcreekmusic.com/Singing.Schools), we learn that Singers Glen, is not only recognized as being the site of the publication of the oldest continually published hymnal in America (Harmonia Sacra) this community is also said to be the birthplace of Southern Gospel music.
Joseph Funk was part of the German and Scot-Irish immigration into the Shenandoah Valley from Pennsylvania. In 1804, he built a log house in what would later become Singers Glen. In 1816, Joseph Funk first published a little book of Choral-Music in nearby Harrisonburg; and in 1832, he established the first Mennonite printing house in the United States at Singers Glen where he printed a singing school manual. He first titled this publication, Genuine Church Music. This is the publication that he later re-titled, Harmonia Sacra (pronounced with a “long A” as in the word” sacred”). Funk also started a singing school at Singers Glen to train young men to become singers and teachers in the shape-note style.
After Funk’s death in 1862, two of his grandsons, Aldine S. Kieffer and Ephraim Ruebush, took over the publishing and printing business and started producing new hymn collections for Sunday schools, revivals, camp meetings, and home gatherings. These new publications became very popular and generated the revenue that established the Ruebush-Kieffer Publishing Company as one of the earliest and most successful publishers of gospel songs.
On To Dayton
The cousins relocated their publishing company and singing school to Dayton, VA in 1878 and established what was to become one of the most successful gospel music publishing companies in America. In addition, they formed an alliance with Shenandoah Seminary in 1879, which eventually evolved into Shenandoah Conservatory of Music (now Shenandoah University, Winchester, VA). One student went on to create other well known music publishing companies; James D. Vaughan formed the James D. Vaughan Publishing Company in Lawrenceburg,TN and a manager of one of his branches, Virgil O. Stamps, went on to establish his own publishing house, the Stamps-Baxter Publishing Company.
Thus, these three publishing companies (1) Ruebush-Kieffer, (2) James D. Vaughan, and (3) Stamps-Baxter became the main sources for the genre of music now known as Southern Gospel music in the shaped-note tradition.
The First Song Book
The Harmonia Sacra Mennonite shape note hymn and tune book began as A Compilation of Genuine Church Music. This first song book included music and tunes harmonized for three voices. The 1847 edition of this song book was the first publication produced by Joseph Funk and Sons at Singers Glen. At this time, he changed the name of the book to Harmonia Sacra. This book was first published as a four shape note book and used the shapes and syllables named: fa, sol, la, and mi. Funk later changed from the four shape system to a seven-shape system that he designed. Further editions were released over the years; and this publication is still in print today making it the oldest continually used hymnal published in America.
What is shape note singing, you ask? It is a system for facilitating congregational and community singing and music learning by adding information to standard notation without taking anything away. Some historians claim that the original four shape notes (fa a triangle sol an oval, la a square, and mi a diamond) were devised by a Philadelphia shopkeeper named John Connelly as early as 1790; and he sold his idea to a pair of musicians named William Little and William Smith. In 1801, these musicians published the first shape note music book titled, The Easy Instructor. It contained an anthology of popular New England psalm-tunes and anthems by William Billings, Daniel Read, and their contemporaries.
Popular Teaching Device
Because the ability to read was not universal especially in the rural areas, shape note singing became a popular teaching device in American singing schools. Shapes were added to the note marks in written music to help singers find pitches within the scales without needing to read or know more complex musical information.
With shape notes, students can learn the parts of a vocal work when the music is depicted in shapes that match up with the syllables with which the notes of the musical scale are sung. The notes of a C major scale are notated and sung as follows:
The syllables and notes of a shape note system depend on the key of the piece. The first note of a major key always has the triangular Fa note.
At the beginning of the 19th century, due to the influence of European music, the do-re-mi musical system was introduced into the US and slowly spread from the city to the country. The new system met resistance from the shape note singers until song writers developed a seven-note notation to match the do-re-me-fa-sol-la-ti scale. The first to have great success with this innovation was Jesse B. Aikin of Philadelphia. At least six other different systems of seven-shape notation were developed including one by Joseph Funk. Nevertheless, the Aikin system survived and is still used. (This success may be due to the influential Ruebush & Kieffer Publishing Company, which adopted Aikin’s system around 1876.) In Aikin’s seven-shape system, the notes of a C major scale are notated and sung as follows.
The seven-shape notation makes no provision for minor keys. It uses a moveable do, so that in the key of C, do is on C, and so forth. At the present time, the seven-shape note system is still used by millions of singers.
Still A Thing
Public shape note sings occur through out the US but especially in the Appalachian region of the east. using the seven-shape system. Plus it is commonly used in Mennonite and Brethren churches as well as in many churches that do not approve singing to musical instrument accompaniment. Numerous songbooks are printed with seven shaped notes for the market at large. Public sings occur quite often using shape note song books such as: Christian Hymnal, Christian Hymnary, Zion’s Praises, Pilgrim’s Praises, Church Hymnal, Silver Gems in Song, and of course, Harmonia Sacra.
Public sings based upon the four shape system are usually referred to as Sacred Harp sings because that is the name of the four shape note song book that is used at these sings. These sings most often occur in the Appalachian region of east TN and western NC.
In Sacred Harp sings, singers sit in a special hollow squared arrangement with a song leader in the middle of the square.
Sacred Harp groups always sing a cappella. The singers arrange themselves in this hollow square, with each side assigned to each of the four parts: treble, alto, tenor, and bass. The treble and tenor sections are usually mixed, with men and women singing the notes an octave apart.
There is no single leader or conductor—the participants take turns in leading. The leader for a particular round selects a song from the book, and names it by its page number. Leading is done in an open-palm style, with the leader standing in the middle of the square facing the tenors. The pitch at which the music is to be sung is relative as there is no instrument to give the singers a starting point. The leader or an assignee finds a good beginning pitch and intones it to the group. The singers reply with the opening notes of their own parts, and then the song immediately begins.
I attended a shape note sing workshop at MerleFest this spring led by Laura Boosinger, a respected old-time and mountain swing musician. It was mesmerizing to say the least. That experience coupled with my recent sad time spent in Singers Glen caused me to want to share this slice of Americana music with you.
There is so much more to learn about this Americana genre of gospel shape note singing that is way beyond the scope of this humble magazine. Let me encourage you to browse your computer to the youtube web site and search for Shape Note Singing in Appalachia if you wish to see and hear this truly homegrown slice of Americana.