Shape-note music

Contributed by Jean Craig

When we choose a new set of documents or a ledger to transcribe, interesting material can appear in the pages outside of the formal texts or lists.  Sometimes there are sketches, short jottings, loose material inserted, or other writings that the contemporary person did not want to let slip away. Our mandate is to try and describe these addenda as carefully as we can, as what we supply may add important social or historical context and be of help to a researcher. And, sometimes, these addenda prove intriguing and fun.

One such find — historical, cultural, and intriguing — was on an endpaper at the close of the first volume of Burial Records for the Second Presbyterian Church, with records dating from 1785 to 1808.  On a page with a final few entries and other jottings, I saw what appeared to be a design of some sort running down the outside edge of the paper.  Upon rotating the image, the “design” proved to be a hymn written on an extended staff as shape-note music. 

Running down the right margin of this page [76]: the word Condolance [sic] written at the very edge of the page; below it is a hymn written as shape-note music; the first verse is written below the staff and reads:

Kind is the speech of Christ our Lord.
Affection sounds in every word
Lo thou art fair my love he cries
Not the young doves have sweeter eyes

Shape note music was a notation created in England in the late 18th century to allow people with little to no musical training to sing in churches or at social gatherings. The different shapes helped in finding pitches in major or minor scales, and became very popular in early America, especially in rural areas. Contemporaries sometimes called the shaped notes “dunce” notes, but they were easy to learn and made people without access to music lessons or money for musical instruments able to participate in singing. In this case, one of the church officials, perhaps the sexton or one of his helpers, appreciated this hymn enough to set it down and have it available, and shape notes allowed that to happen.

An internet search of the first line of this hymn went to Hymnary.org, which gives the title of the hymn as The Completeness of Christ, and its author as Rev. Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Hymnary.org also includes a chart showing the popularity of the hymn over time, and refers to a set of volumes Watts published around 1707, entitled Hymns and Spiritual Songs, a later edition of which has been published online by Project Gutenberg. In this edition, the title of the song is given as “The church’s beauty in the eyes of Christ.”

Second Presbyterian’s Session Minutes, vol. 1, 1744-1798, pp. 40-42, mention Watts’ paraphrases of the Psalms, because they caused a commotion when they were suddenly introduced to the congregation in that year. This was not because the music was inferior, but because conservative members wanted what they were used to, and had not been given enough notice of the change, even a change that had been OK’d by the Synod.  The church held a special meeting of the congregation with a vote to settle the matter; Watt’s work won the day.  The conservatives in the congregation wanted to mount an appeal to the Session, which was granted, but the Session notes don’t record any further action. Rev. Watts’s hymns were enormously popular in the 18th century and beyond. Congregations still sing some of them nowadays.

One thought on “Shape-note music”

  1. Thank you for taking the time to investigate this addendum, Jean! I am impressed by how your curiosity about the shape-note music inscribed on the end paper of a volume of birth records for the Second Presbyterian Church opens a window into a church debate. One detail such as this conjures a larger story.

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