Holiday Carol Time: What Are These People Singing?

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Maybe you've heard this before:

You walk into a room and a circle of people erupt in song, but the lyrics are hard to pinpoint. Is that a fa? sol? la? mi?

No, you are not on a Sound of Music trip. Those are the four notes of what is called shape-note music. This tradition of singing was created 160 years ago for a largely illiterate audience. People learn to sing the shapes of notes in a traditional bass, alto, tenor and treble division, before singing the words. In other words, the notes form the shapes of the four sounds.

Just listen:


The group in the video is the St. Louis Shape Note Singers. They gather Monday nights at Webster University, a regular session that occurs just about every other week.

Without any instrumental accompaniment, many people use their hands to keep pace with the music. Everyone takes turns leading the group and the song leader stands in the center of the square.

Songs are sung from two different hymnals: The Sacred Harp edition and The Missouri Harmony edition. 

The lyrics don't jump off the page. Again, a lot of this stuff harkens back to days of yore (1500s, 1600s):

"Salvation, o the joyful sound!/ 'Tis pleasure to our ears" etc. It's got Northeast Colonial America written all over it.

Still, as the flyer at the entrance notes, shape-note singing recalls the days when church music was arranged to be sung for the congregation instead of the choir.

Feel free to knock on the doors of strangers and belting these tunes out.

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