Family Affair 

The Richmond Shape Note Singers teach new generations to sing the oldest American folk songs.

click to enlarge ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel

White folks aren't known for rocking out in church. The reserved, monotonous singing of old hymns and church pipe organs seems more likely to gently roll you back to sleep on Sundays. Ahhh-mehhhn.

But explore the roots of shape-note singing, which uses some of the earliest written folk music, and you'll find passionate singers who can barely contain their singing, and yes, even shouting at times.

The Richmond Shape Note Singers are bringing shouty back, y'all.

Shape-note singing is loud a capella singing that involves male and female groups singing six-part harmonies, usually facing each other, with one person in the middle choosing and leading the song. Singers learn to read shapes on the page that match up with the syllables for the notes of the musical scale. It's a very close-knit, familial style of singing, using mostly sacred but some secular songs.

Groups, which can range from eight to 500 people, traditionally have been based in the Deep South — the Sand Mountain singers from Alabama performed a few years ago at the Richmond Folk Fest. But lately, shape-note singing is experiencing some newfound interest among younger generations in other locales.

Leyland del Re grew up singing shape note songs in Clarke County, in the Shenandoah Valley near Winchester. Her parents learned about the songs through a local community choir that was using "The Sacred Harp" book, a common hymnal of sorts for the shape-note-singing community.

"As I got older in my teens, it was a challenge to learn sight reads and other parts," says del Re, a 28-year-old who works as a nurse at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. "The spiritual and emotional aspects just sort of grew on me. You definitely feel a release, singing your heart and soul out for hours at a time. The people you sing with become like your family."

When del Re moved to Richmond a few years ago, a local shape-note group that had been around since the mid-'80s had lost momentum. She helped rekindle interest and the singers began meeting every other Tuesday night at members' homes. She now has 100 people on her mailing list, she says, though usually only around a dozen show up regularly to sing every week.

Nate Mathews, a bassist who plays in several local groups, including the Moonbees and Richmanian Ramblers, first discovered a listing for a Varina meeting while reading Style Weekly. "There were 80 people in the room and it was the most powerful music I had ever seen white people make," he says. "I didn't even know we could do that."

The music is inclusive of all religions — and all kinds of people show up. "Even if you don't believe the religious lyrics literally, there's a lot metaphorically that speaks to you," del Re says. "And because it's not attached to a sermon, people can choose to interpret the words as they want. It's very egalitarian. People can call a song that means something to them at that moment."

While the group isn't picky about who comes out to sing, she says, it's helpful if they can match a pitch. You don't have to be able to read sheet music at first, but eventually you'll learn the shapes.

The Richmond group is moving forward by helping update the well-known canon of songs. It has taken part in compiling songs for a new book, "The Shenandoah Harmony," the largest new four-shape tune book published in more than 150 years. Many of the songs had been unpublished since the 1850s.

"The idea started with my parents but grew to include a committee of eight people around the East Coast," del Re says. "These are songs that aren't sung very often but are still amazing. It's really nice to have another option to keep challenging yourself."

The inspiration for the book was to create a collection of the best songs published by singing teacher Ananias Davisson from 1815 to 1825 in the Shenandoah Valley, as well as including five editions of the "Kentucky Harmony" and three editions of the "Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony," which combine New England-composed tunes with arranged folk melodies of the era. Songs were added by committee with each song needing a majority vote of four to get into the book. "Our quote was 'all killer, no filler,'" del Re says. "The songs that made it deserve to be back out there — they're gorgeous."

A lot of the secondary books that exist have kinks, or overlap with the "Sacred Harp" book. But "The Shenandoah Harmony" has 450 songs, with titles such as "Despair" by Justin Morgan and "Weeping Mary" that aren't found in "The Sacred Harp."

Back then, the Shenandoah Valley was filled with various immigrant populations who brought their native influences into school singing groups. Some songs used in the new book were originally in German and had to be translated using a German teacher and singer, Mary Helen Dupree, from Georgetown University.

The group hasn't recorded an album (some purists are against the thought), but there's a university professor in Philadelphia, Rachel Hall, who was on the committee and is pursuing a grant to put together a recording, del Re says.

"It felt like a private club for a while but it's too fun for that," Mathews says. "Our ears are so familiar with old-time and bluegrass music but this is neither. This was before the banjo came over, it predates old-time music."

The Richmond Shape Note Singers perform a rare open-house performance celebrating the newly published shape-note hymnal, "The Shenandoah Harmony," on Tuesday, May 7, from 6-9 p.m. at Glave Kocen Art Gallery. 1620 W. Main St.

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