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The History of Shape Note Singing in Southern Somerset County, PA


Shapes of the Past 

by Linda Marker and Duane Howard


When we first started singing from the Sacred Harp book at Mt Union Church, we were met with a variety of reactions. One such comment was that they didn't think Shape Note singing was done in our area. So, there being no documented history of music in Somerset County, we set out to research this.

One early clue: Our friend and singer, Alisa Pavick Barnhart introduced us to early shape note books that were in the archives at the West Overton Museum, which was the birthplace of Henry Clay Frick, in neighboring Westmoreland County, PA. We discovered that the books were written by Rev. Samuel Wakefield, of Westmoreland and Indiana Counties. He is known to have written and compiled seven books of Christian music, one of which was the Christian Harp. (One of these was later found near the Somerset-Westmoreland County line, near to what is today Seven Springs.)  Wakefield's daughter later married an Overholt, which is a likely explanation as to how they came to be at the Overholt Museum in West Overton.


But, back to the beginning. The first references to music in Southern Somerset County are found in the Jersey Baptist Church minutes. Their early meetings were held for the entire weekend; Saturday minutes are replete with "singing and prayer" notations at each meeting. Evidently Sunday was reserved just for the preaching. We don't know what books they used, or what songs they sang. However, A. A. Graham, author of the 1883 History of Fairfield and Perry Cos. Ohio, documents the move of some second generation Jersey Baptist children moved to Perry County, OH, and the first organization of the Baptist Church Society there about 1820. They  (Skinners, Rushs, Wrights, Colborns, etc.-ever heard those names in Somerset County before?) held singings, using the old Missouri Harmonist, which was a four shape note book. He states that young people would often come six or eight miles to attend a singing. (pp. 245-6)

 

Prior to books like Missouri Harmony, folks often sang from "poetry" books, with words only. Few would have had formal musical training. These poetry books listed the meter, and a tune was chosen by the leader, that would fit the meter of the poem to that of the tune.  For example, the meter of what we know as Amazing Grace is called Common Meter, or 8-6-8-6. Count it on your fingers - you'll find the first line has eight syllables, the second line has six. One could sing any Common Meter poem to any tune of the same meter. If you wish to try this, try singing While Shepherd Watched Their Flocks by Night to the tune we know as Amazing Grace, minus the short refrain they tacked on the end. These poetry books were small, would fit in your pocket, and would have been owned and kept by the individual. We have found several copies of these books at Mt Union Church in Upper Turkeyfoot township. Sometimes they were written in the German script, if the congregation was primarily German speaking.

 

 


 

This type of song book is still being printed and used today, in the form of   Lloyd's Hymnals, by Primitive Baptist churches in the South.

 

Another method of teaching a tune was "line singing," where the leader would sing a line, which the congregation then repeated, line by line, to the end. This method may still be used in some Amish communities, and I've seen it used in some modern Catholic churches, like St Vincent Basilica, in Latrobe, PA

 

The "shape note" phenomena was one that began about 1790 in Philadelphia to teach people to read music notation by learning the relative distance between the different shapes. It used primarily American composers, and is considered unique to Early America.

 

The earliest systems had only four shapes, which repeated, except for the 7th  note,  mi.


 

Somerset County was surrounded by these early four shape singing book publishers. The Easy Instructor was first published in Philadelphia in 1801 by Wm Little & Wm Smith, followed by John Wyeth's 1813 Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second, in Harrisburg, PA. The Missouri Harmony, mentioned above, was published in 1820 in Cincinnati, OH. Abraham Lincoln's biographer, Carl Sandburg, states that he sang from this book while courting Ann Rutledge at her father's tavern in New Salem, IL.  We know that by about 1820, Andrew Law of Connecticut, was dispatching singing masters and tune book salesmen all over the frontier.  We have one advertisement for a Franklin Harmony (Franklin County, PA) listed in the Somerset Herald of May 11, 1830. 



 

And so it went for the first half of the 19th Century, until Jesse B Aikin patented the first seven shape system in The Christian Minstrel in 1846. This is the system we know today as "do re mi fa sol la ti do." Our area evidently was ripe for change, as several of these books have survived in Southern Somerset County. I was amazed to tour the Old Pike Toll House in Addison and find one on display. It is a well used copy, with child scribbles, and it has favorite tunes marked. Because the music is written on a staff with three or four harmony parts, it was NOT a book that was used in isolation. The scribbles indicate that book was originally owned by John & Lucinda (Miller) Tressler. Lucinda, born in 1850,  was a daughter of Biard and Elizabeth Miller, whose neighbor in 1860,  was Elizabeth Growall, which would have put them near the still-standing log house on Humbert Rd, Upper Turkeyfoot Township. John Tressler died in 1904, and the family, with the two children Harvey (Harry) and Minnie moved to Ursina. All are found in the Ursina Cemetery today, with the last survivor being Harvey. He died in 1962, after which the book found it's way to the Toll House in Addison, PA

               

 

Index page of the Christian Minstrel found in the Old Pike Toll House in Addison, PA

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A second copy of Christian Minstrel was located in the collection of Mark Miner which had been passed down through the family of Elizabeth Minerd, of Upper Turkeyfoot Twp. (Hexie) and husband George Long Jr, who grew up in Milford Township, Somerset County. They were most likely singing out of The Christian Minstrel in this area, up to and including the Civil War. Lowell Mason, and groups like the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, looked down their noses at this "old fashioned" music, with it's fuging tunes and anthems, and introduced more "scientific" music from Europe. This hastened the demise of these sweet old tunes in the Northeast. Of course, with the war, our boys, many of whom had never been off the farm before, were exposed to brass bands, banjos, and other  music and cultures. Many romanticized secular songs also became popular, and sheet music became readily available. Pump organs and pianos were becoming a common parlor item. We find a number of people listed as music teachers in this part of the county in the Census Schedules of the early 1900's.


In the Southern states, which resisted change, the four shaped books continued, with the most popular being Southern Harmony, by William Walker, and The Sacred Harp, published by B F White in Philadelphia in 1844. (This remains the most widely used book today)

 

And, so, the little Christian Minstrel book sits alone in the Toll House, no more than an oddity today, with child scribbles and broken back. It is hard to believe that it was once was a vital piece of our social history. We look at the funny little shapes and wonder what they were about. And no human ear remains in this County that has heard the sweet harmonies of those books. Harvey Tressler, born in 1878, and who died in 1962, may have been the last one in the County to have heard this music.

 

Both Linda and Duane have been very involved with keeping Shape Note music alive in Southern Somerset County. Currently  between 12 to 20 singers, of all abilities, meet monthly at the historic old Mt Union Church to learn the old songs and revive the community singing tradition of Sacred Harp. Call 814-352-8029 or 814-926-3142 for dates and times

Back to Mt Union Sacred Harp Group

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