4.02.2009

Billy Pilgrim ain't got nothing on me...

Everyone knows the real opening sentence to Slaughterhouse-Five is the beginning of chapter two:


Listen:
   Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.  


Now, Billy had a tough row to hoe, what with being unstuck in time, and in war torn Germany and stuck up there with the Trafalmagorians or whatever their names were, but Billy, after all, was a fictional character.  I'm real and i feel pretty unstuck in time myself occasionally.  

Sometimes this is has to do with my own Luddite tendencies.   Sometimes it's about the fact that both of my folks spent some of their formative years sans electricity and indoor plumbing and rode into town on wagons and stuff while i, on the other hand, rode miles and miles everyday in a fancy car to a private school and had 23 televisions and milk that came in a jug--what a gap to span in one generation!  Sometimes it's about the music i play and grew up with. That is the case today...

Imagine my surprise when i got an email inviting me to a "shape-note singing." I followed a link or two and found descriptions:

(Roughly:) Shape note singing was the oldest musical tradition in Northern America. Shape-note singing--also known as fasola--used shapes to denote the different pitches of the musical staff, and thereby made it easier to learn.  Practiced by rural southern churches,  Shape-note singing featured a distinctive four part harmony, sung a cappella, usually with a leader beating time with his arm.  Etc. etc.  

That sure is a lot of past tense verbs!  The email i got encouraged me to come to a shape-note singing happening here in town and help "preserve" this historic method of singing.  Lessons will be provided.

Alright.  Here's why i'm unstuck in time:   i used to sit and watch my Dad beat his arm in time to a capella, four part spirituals with a church of over 900 people.  Now granted, we quit using The Sacred Harp songbook back when i was a kid (much to the elder's chagrin, Daddy chose to go with the more "gospel" filled Stamps-Baxter book which caused people to pat their foot, and thereby "dance," and thereby brought about sin and the aforementioned elder's chagrin) , but still, daddy beat his arm and we sang a cappela four part harmony.  I knew this was a little different from other churches and i knew it to be particularly to locale, but I didn't know this was such a huge novelty.  I certainly didn't know it was part of the distant past.  (I imagine my friends Loraine and Kenneth will find this amusing too, as the three of us used to sit together--a mere 20 years ago--and harmonize beautifully on Sunday nights.)   

I'm glad I got to grow up with that.  I never had to really learn to read music, i can sing harmony with a log if necessary, and it makes me feel good--if not just a little confused--to be a part, evidently, of such a curious old-time tradition.     

   

 
   

7 comments:

Kevin O'Mara said...

I know that at my current age of 32 I'm not that much younger than you, but it's a little younger, and that's what counts.

I remember that the entire time I went to church (a Church of Christ) we used songbooks with shape notes. I haven't seen them in maybe fifteen years, but I'm pretty sure they're still in use.

The Mom said...

I'd never heard of shaped notes until I moved to Tennessee 40 years ago. Some of my students in the past 30+ years have told me a little of their history, and some of those older gospel singers are still using them here in Tennessee. Good post, again, Walter.

Kenneth said...

I learned a lot about harmony singing on those occasions when I went to church with you. I grew up going to a Presbyterian church where people in the pews sang the hymns softly if they sang at all and generally stuck to the melody.

There are web sites with downloads of Church of Christ singing. Whatever else there is to say about the Church of Christ, the singing is lovely. (I've always liked "Sing and Be Happy".) Of course the downloads don't convey what's it like to be in that big group, singing along in sweet harmony. Very powerful.

Kenneth said...

I keep thinking that says Billy Gilman.

Biffle said...

He ain't got nothing on me either.

Anonymous said...

I still have a shape note copy of Amazing Grace that my great-grandfather used in rural, I-dare-you-to-find-it-on-a-map South Georgia...he was not formally trained in music, but could tear up a piano.

Curtis said...

The hymnals used at First Baptist Church in Monterey when I was little also used shape notes. There's quite a resurrection going on among the shape-note enthusiasts these days.