Shape notes

In 'Cold Mountain' and in North Central Florida, old music finds a new audience


The altos, left to right, Jeanne Greenfield, Lois Bonnell, Judy Parsons and Ann Pierson sing out at the monthly meeting of the Sweetwater Shape Note Singers at Church of the Mediator (Episcopal) in Micanopy. Shape note music is featured in the film "Cold Mountain."

LEE FERINDEN/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, February 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 31, 2004 at 10:41 p.m.

As the Civil War battle at Petersburg, Va., began to rage on screen in the film "Cold Mountain," the haunting voices of shape note singers filled the theater, and I could feel the goosebumps jump up on my arms and the hair prickle on my neck.

As a relative newcomer to this old style of music, I felt it was great that it was getting such wide-ranging national exposure. I also felt a bit of relief that it wasn't all Hollywooded up. The power of the voices wasn't coated with symphonic background accompaniment, the singing group wasn't supplemented with classically trained voices to take off the rough edges. It was the real stuff.

It's called shape notes because the musical notation is written in a special way to help singers find the right pitch. Fa is a triangle, Sol is a round spot, La is a rectangle and Mi is a diamond. Instead of the more familiar Do, Ra, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do, the scale in this four-shape system is Fa, Sol, La, Fa, Sol, La, Mi, Fa. And before singing the lyrics to a tune, singers sing the notes by the shape names, so it's also called Fasola music, for the distinctive sound of that first time through.

Instead of being sung in typical church choir fashion with members standing in neat elevated rows, shape note singers sit in what's called a "hollow square." The low-voiced basses face the high-pitch trebles.

The tenors - known as the leads in shape note lingo - carry the melody, as they sit across the square from the altos. The leader stands in the center, surrounded by the four parts.

When sung by a large group of traditional singers, the sound will nearly lift the roof off of a building. The harmonies sound like something from another age - which they are - and in some tunes, the parts weave in and out and around like children around a May pole. Music critics have raved over the power and energy of the singers featured on the "Cold Mountain" soundtrack.

Film comments

After watching the film I got curious as to how it was received by other singers, and those whose experience with this type of music can be measured in generations, instead of just a few years. So I went to the monthly gathering of the Sweetwater Shape Note Singers in Micanopy to find out.

The Rev. Les Singleton, whose Church of the Mediator hosts the singing each month, said the film was a topic of discussion when he'd recently traveled to Hoboken, Ga., where each month a large gathering of traditional singers meets. He was surprised that he was one of the few who had actually seen it.

Singleton said he went to the film not knowing it would feature music from the "Sacred Harp," the songbook used by the group. But as soon as he heard the distinctive sound, he recognized it, although he couldn't pick out the words. Later, in a scene of a group singing at church, there was no doubting the source of the music, although he felt the director had overdone it a bit with everybody keeping time from the pews with the distinctive hand motions used by the song leaders.

"I hope it encourages people to come out, listen and try it," Singleton said.

On the soundtrack

Richard Ivey was a visitor at the recent Micanopy singing. A 20-year-old student at Auburn University, Ivey said he'd read about the Micanopy gathering online and decided to visit while he was attending a school for umpires in Daytona Beach. Ivey had some first-hand perspective on the soundtrack for "Cold Mountain"; he's on it.

While set in Western North Carolina, much of the filming was done in Romania. One scene in the film shows a church full of people, the stars and Romanian extras packed the pews, while the singing voices came from halfway around the world.

They were recorded on a Friday night in June 2002 in a small church in Henegar, Ala. Ivey was one of more than 50 traditional singers there that night to supply the voices. Over two hours they recorded nearly 25 songs, two of which were included in the film. He was also part of a small group of those singers who traveled to Los Angeles for the film's debut.

"We were expecting they'd use about 15 seconds in the movie," he said, so he was glad to see the extended screen time it was given.

Impact of film

Ivey says he's been singing the music for as long as he can remember, and thinks he actually sang his first song at age 2. His father, David Ivey, organized a summer camp, Camp Fasola, last year near Anniston, Ala. He expected 40 campers for last summer's first camp and ended up with 72. They came from 22 states and the United Kingdom, evidence that the music is gaining a following outside of its traditional Southern base.

David Ivey said he's already seen an impact from the film. When he taught a singing school at Liberty Baptist Church, where the shape note songs for the film soundtrack were recorded, it drew a crowd of 80 people, many of whom were attracted by the film. What has been the reaction of long-time traditional singers?

"Some have expressed only mild disappointment that they could not understand the words to `Idumea,' which is used during the Petersburg battle scene. I think most singers think the extra exposure in the film could be an advantage to the strengthening of the community," Ivey said via e-mail.

Interest growing

Pat Morse started the group in Micanopy by teaching shape note singing as a community education class in Gainesville in the early 1990s. She says nearly all of the singers came in without any experience or family tradition in the music. She says several members of that original class are still singing. In February, Morse will be leading a shape note workshop at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs.

Morse, who first began singing shape notes in the 1970s, says she's seen interest in the music growing.

"Little by little it's spreading everywhere," she said. "It's really making a comeback in this country."

Morse described the use of the music in the "Cold Mountain" battle scene as "powerful."

"I was just intrigued by the juxtaposition of the two, it was just so loud, as loud as the battle scene, and so appropriate to the setting," she said.

The song, "Idumea" features a virtual wall of human voices. The lyrics, "And am I born to die? To lay this body down! And must my trembling spirit fly into a world unknown?" boom over the battlefield carnage.

Like an instrument

It was a sound that intrigued George Kasnic, who said he'd never heard of the music before seeing the film.

"The people sounded more like an instrument than vocals," he said.

So at the recent meeting in Micanopy, Kasnic came to hear it live. He said since seeing the film he'd purchased the soundtrack and done some research via computer at www.fasola.org, to find out more. He said he was initially stumped when hearing the notes sung at the opening of a song.

"You hear that and think, `What is that? That's like no language I've heard before,' " he said. "This is fascinating stuff to learn about."

Marvin Reeves, 63, of Orange Park, was making his first visit to Micanopy, but sings at gatherings in Hoboken, Ga., and Hilliard so often, "if I don't show up, something is wrong."

While he says he hasn't seen the film, or any film, since "Smokey and the Bandit" was in the theater, he, too, has seen the growing popularity of the music he learned growing up in church. His travels also show him the variety between different groups. He said he enjoyed the singing in Micanopy, but the pace took some getting used to.

"Where I come from we sing it slow," he said.

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