Gathering Spaces: Shape Note Singing


By Anne Helke | December 2, 2014

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The tradition of shape note singing, also known as Sacred Harp singing, does not come from Wisconsin. It originated in the early American South and remains more widely practiced today in northern Alabama and Georgia. But it has also found a home here in Wisconsin.

In the early 1980s a group of people started getting together to sing shape note music in Madison.  Still active to this day, the Madison Sacred Harp Singers meet twice a month for Sunday afternoon “singings,” gatherings that often involve more than just singing. For many of the participants, what began as a curiosity or appreciation for this particular singing tradition has become a dedication to a community of fellow singers because, as one singer explained, “you can’t sing [it] by yourself.”

What makes shape note singing work is the gathering together of many different voices. The more voices included and the more enthusiastic the singing, the better it sounds. And by “better,” participants mean “louder.” Shape note singing is not about perfect pitch; it’s about the participation. In this gathering space, the novices sit next to the veteran singers, the tone-deaf next to the professional musicians, and the most timid voices  next to the most bold. They all sing together. Loudly. And it sounds good. It also feels pretty good too.

“Gathering Spaces” is a series looking at the different spaces in Wisconsin where people find, build, and shape a sense of community.

Anne Helke

Anne Helke is the online content producer for the “Wisconsin Life” project who grew up on a lone draft horse farm in the midst of dairy farms in north-central Wisconsin, which was great until she realized you can’t get string cheese from draft horses. 
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