“And I’m goin’ tell you, God was in us, ‘cause we sung…”
On a chilly winter afternoon in early 2010, members of the United Shape Note Singers gathered in Ray Backers’s living room, a small but cozy space in rural west Georgia. The room was comfortably warm, thanks to a small heater that had been set into the old fireplace, and quiet chatter punctuated with laughter greeted visitors as they came in the door. Arranged on sofas and chairs around a coffee table filled with snack and soda, a group of seven men and women gathered to talk about an important part of their lives and memories. They were drawn together by the opportunity to share their passion for the music that they sing and the faith and heritage that it represents. As they each told their stories, they transported their listeners to lamp-lit evenings where children followed shape notes with little fingers, humid Sunday afternoons filled with music and laughter and white-washed churches where singers sat swaying in creaky pews. On that January day, the music that the United Note Singers sang became more than music. It became a way to connect with living history.
As part of the Center for Public History’s Regional Music Project, students at the Center began documenting the tradition of shape-note singing in African American communities in Georgia in 2010. Although the Sacred Harp style of shape-note singing is relatively well known in the rural South, very few are aware of distinctive characteristics of the African American tradition. African American shape-note singers employ a seven-note system, syncopated rhythms, and a uniquely emotional singing style that differentiates their music from that of the Sacred Harp tradition.
Those who carry on the shape-note singing tradition in modern African American communities often remember members of their family who also sang shape-notes and find themselves drawn to the practice by both the beauty of the music and the timelessness that it represents. Unfortunately, as those who remember and practice shape-note singing grow older, the tradition is in danger of being lost. In an effort to document and preserve this rich part of Georgia’s musical history, staff at the Center for Public History collected oral histories from contemporary note singers and have produced an album that features shape note singing groups from the west Georgia region.
Students and staff at the Center for Public History have had the pleasure of working with the United Shape Note Singers, an active note singing group that draws members from communities through out west Georgia.