Saturday, June 6, 2009

Shape of Song

published in Prime Time, a special section of the Lincoln Journal Star, Mar 25, 2008
Copyright Lee Enterprises, Inc. Mar 25, 2008. Used with permission.

Lincoln group keeps shape-note singing tradition alive.

A traditional style of four-part a capella singing is being rediscovered in cities across the nation. The Lincoln shape-note singers say it's not like any music you've ever heard before and that's why they like it.

Shape-note singing developed in the American colonies as a way of teaching congregations how to sing, said group member Aura Lee Furgason. Singing masters traveled from town to town holding "singing schools." Notes on the music staff were given specific shapes and names, which made it easier for untrained singers to read music.

Around the time of the Civil War, new European immigrants began promoting the use of organs and encouraged more "sophisticated" singing. Shape-note singing lost respectability and was kept alive only in remote congregations in the South and on the western frontier.

With the recent popularity of folk music has come a renewed interest in shape-note singing, also called Sacred Harp, referring to a songbook originally published in 1844. Groups that gather to sing these old-style Christian hymns include people of all ages and beliefs.

"Hardly anything about normal choir music applies here," Furgason said. There are no rehearsals, no accompaniment, no audience. It's all about participation. Hugh McGraw, a national Sacred Harp leader, puts it this way: "I wouldn't cross the street to listen to Sacred Harp singing, but I'd travel 500 miles to sing it myself."

At a "singing," the singers sit in a square facing each other, with one vocal part on each side. Of the four parts treble, alto, tenor and bass the tenor usually has the largest number of singers and sings the closest thing to the melody, though the music is more about the harmony than the tune. The songs are always sung at the highest volume possible.

"Forget do, re, mi," Furgason said. Four notes are repeated to make the eight-note scale: fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi and fa. Though the music staff is virtually the same, the notes have different shapes: a triangle for fa, an oval for sol, a square for la and a diamond for mi. Before singing the words to a song, Sacred Harp singers first "sing the notes." The resulting sound, which sounds like gibberish to a newcomer, has gained this style the nickname "fasola."

The lyrics many of which were written by English clergymen Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley and John Newton speak of sin, salvation and heaven. Much of the music is Celtic in origin and uses a type of harmony that may sound stark, even discordant to today's musicians. Furgason is fond of saying that you have to have a certain "gene" to enjoy it.

Furgason, now 73, first started singing shape-note music in 1996. She read in the newspaper that Arlie Prokop was starting a group in Lincoln. Furgason, who had sung in school and church choirs, remembered hearing a Sacred Harp rendition of "Amazing Grace" on television, and she thought she'd give it a try. After the first singing, her husband, Jack, asked her what she thought.

"I said, 'Well, it was kind of interesting, but I don't think I'll be back.'"

But all week, the music kept replaying in her head.

"When the next time came, there I went - hooked bad."

Since then, Furgason, who sings treble, has been a regular with the Lincoln group and has attended more than 20 singings in nine states.

"It's thrilling to me," she said. "It's visceral; it's transporting. I like the raw, archaic, heartfelt harmonies. But the other part is the unifying spirit among all of us independent people. There's a bond there."

The Lincoln shape-note singers, consisting of six members, have "demonstrated" they never perform for churches and historic gatherings around the state, including a Lewis and Clark celebration at Fort Calhoun, the Jefferson County Historical Society and the Beatrice Chautauqua.

Eric Bachenberg, who sings bass with the Lincoln group, said he's always had an interest in folk music as well as American history, and has been singing in church choirs since he was a child. Sacred Harp music combines all these interests, he said.

"With my history background, I can identify with the time period that this music comes out of: the early days of America, the early westward expansion. This music has survived, and now it can be performed and made to sound just like it did back then."

Historical records show that shape-note songbooks were carried west by migrants along the trails that passed through Nebraska, Bachenberg said. In addition, Abraham Lincoln is known to have attended a singing school.

Shape-note singing is a great way to socialize, Bachenberg said. "You don't have to be a perfectly trained vocalist to sing it. It's just something that's fun to sing."


Fasola Omaha will present the 10th Nebraska All-Day Singing, featuring shape-note music from The Sacred Harp, from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on April 5 at St. Vincent's Orthodox Church, 51st and Lake streets in Omaha. The event includes dinner on the grounds and an evening party. For further information, contact Jenni at (402) 504-1281 or e-mail


The Lincoln shape-note singers meet at a Lincoln library the third Sunday of every month from 2 to 4 p.m. For more information on the Lincoln group, call Aura Lee Furgason at 465-0657.
For more information on Sacred Harp singing, including links to hear the music, visit

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