The shape-note singing tradition uses four syllables, and each syllable has a shape assigned to it — a triangle for “fa,” an oval for “so,” a square for “la” and a diamond for “mi.” The familiar seven-note system [do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti] was adapted later and is the method used most often in shape-note gospel singing conventions today.
Sources: Charles Towler, fasola.org
Cleveland, Tenn., native Charles Towler will be among eight Tennessee artists and organizations honored Tuesday with the Tennessee Folklife Heritage Award.
The award, to be presented by Gov. Bill Haslam and first lady Crissy Haslam, is presented by the Tennessee Arts Commission every other year as part of the Governor’s Arts Awards program.
Towler, 71, was recognized for his work with an older form of music known as “shape note.”
Songs written in shape-note style simplified music for beginners who wanted to learn to sing in church, he said. Many popular Christian songs such as “I’ll Fly Away” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” originally were written in the style, he said.
Towler said shape-note singing was his first love, and receiving an award for it is “icing on the cake.”
“I was just trying to do what the Lord wanted me to and promote something that really blesses people,” he said.
Robert Cogswell, director of folk life at the Tennessee Arts Commission, explained that Towler has been involved in keeping the tradition of shape-note singing alive.
“The really amazing thing about Charles Towler is that he’s done it all,” Cogswell said. “He has written around 450 songs, worked in the field of music for 45 years and published around 75 different songbooks.”
Towler’s first song was published when he was 20, and he has been involved in music ever since. Last year, Towler celebrated 50 years of songwriting.
Stephen Shearon, a professor of musicology at Middle Tennessee State University, nominated Towler for the award.
“Given his activities as a shape-note singing teacher, it seemed to me that he was a good candidate for this and a good representative for the gospel singing convention world,” Shearon said.
The Governor’s Arts Awards were created to honor those who have made significant contributions “within art forms that are rooted in the traditional or ethnic culture of Tennessee,” according to a news release.
Contact staff writer Mary Beth Gray at mgray@times freepress.com or 423-757-6298.