published Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Shape-note singing workshop

The Folk School of Chattanooga’s first shape-note singing workshop in January attracted about 40 participants.
The Folk School of Chattanooga’s first shape-note singing workshop in January attracted about 40 participants.
IF YOU GO

What: Shape-note singing workshop

When: 7-9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21

Where: Folk School of Chattanooga, 1800 Rossville Ave.

Admission: Free

Phone: 827-8906

Venue website: www.chattanoogafolk.com

In the 2003 historical romance “Cold Mountain,” news of the start of the Civil War arrives in the fictional North Carolina town, interrupting a church congregation practicing a musical tradition that, even in 1861, was already decades old.

Shape-note singing — also known as old harp, sacred harp or fa-so-la singing — traces its roots to 1801 in New England. Tonight, Feb. 21, the Folk School of Chattanooga will host a workshop to introduce newcomers to the practice, which also has deep roots in Appalachian culture, said executive director Christie Burns.

“It’s a bona fide tradition,” she said. “We’re still singing from the same books that were distributed 100 years ago, and the songs are sung with the same melodies and harmonies as they were then.”

Unlike traditional lyrics, shape-note singing is designed to be all-inclusive, so even illiterate vocalists can participate through harmonization.

The works, which are primarily sacred hymns, are presented like traditional compositions, but each note is assigned one of four shapes to correspond with a syllable — fa, sol, la and mi — that can be sung in lieu of actual words.

According to “A Shape-Note Singing Lesson” published by Smithsonian Education, shape-note singers traditionally gather in what is known as a hollow square with tenors, basses, altos and trebles each gathering to one side. Each singer is offered a chance to lead a performance, standing in the center and keeping time with rhythmic arm chopping that is often mimicked by the other participants.

With an experienced choir, Burns said, the sound penetrates and resonates in the body.

“You can’t really duplicate that with anything else,” she said. “It’s the ultimate Surround Sound.”

Tonight’s workshop is the second at the Folk School, following a month after the inaugural tutorial attracted close to 40 participants, some from as far away as Atlanta. That workshop, like tonight’s, will be led by Judy Mincey, a Calhoun, Ga., resident and an avid shape-note singer.

During the two-hour session, participants will be taught the basics of the practice, including its history, how to read the syllables and some of the hymns that make up the common beginner repertoire.

In keeping with shape-note singing’s tradition of openness and all-inclusivity, the workshop will be free, but a donation will be accepted to fund future Folk School programming.

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

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