By Lindsay Kratochwill
The streets of Hyde Park are dark, empty and cold when I finally make it to the apartment building and, as instructed, ring buzzer seventeen. A tiny square of paper is taped to the clear glass door with four musical notes in four different shapes: a triangle, oval, rhombus and rectangle. Soon, a silent stranger comes to let me in. As we climb the spiral stairs, I begin to hear it; a great sound, welling up and abruptly de-crescendoing. It is powerful but erratic, seeping through the walls of the stairwell.
Shape note singing is raw, loud, haunting—a wall of sound. We step inside the warm apartment and the music, sprung from the throats and hearts of those in the room, envelopes me. Each imperfection creates a beautifully eerie chord.
The first time I heard shape note singing I was alone. While DJing a weekly radio show, I found a CD of folk music archivist Alan Lomax’s recordings of shape note music buried in the bottom drawer at the campus radio station. I had not even heard of shape note singing before, but as I sat in the dim room and let the music pour through the speakers above me, I was hooked. I chose a song I had heard before, “Weeping Mary” and the sound has benevolently haunted me ever since. It sounded so ancient and rural and so far removed from modern-day Chicago. But when a fellow DJ noticed me playing from that CD almost every show, she told me that this style of singing not only still exists, but that it’s alive with fervor in Chicago.
Hearing the music sung live is like being transported to a different world. The singers fill the front room, arranged in a square, trebles on one side, bass on the other and the tenors and altos flanking both sides between. This is known in shape note singing as the hollow square. Everyone faces into the square, the four-part harmonies emanate from each side of the square, all toward the leader. The leader, traditionally the person who calls—or picks—the next song to sing, stands in the center of the square.
When I walk into the apartment, Lisa Cohen is leading, flailing her arms and keeping time in a rhythmic pattern, while some other seated singers echo her motions in more muted movements. Barely anyone looks up from their books, bound in deep red leather and embossed with gold, until the song ends. She admits that it takes a while to feel comfortable enough to call and lead a song. But when you can, it’s a chance to play “your little stick of sugar”—that song that you feel most comfortable singing. She leads and sings most of the time without looking at a songbook, her eyes closed slightly and her head tilted back as she belts out each note.
The Hyde Park singers use material from “The Sacred Harp” (colloquially called the Red Book). It was first published in 1844, though it was most recently edited and reissued in 1991. They also use “The Missouri Harmony” text (referred to as the Green Book) and printed pages of songs that one singer might favor that is in a different text, such as “the Cooper” (the Blue Book) songbook. Many singers in Chicago even have songs they’ve written that are published in these books. The Hyde Park group isn’t the only singing group to meet regularly in the city. On the North Side, another group meets bimonthly. They work exclusively out of the Red Book—no photocopied pages to be found.
When the song ends, a calm descends on the room, almost as if the air is not just filled to the brim with sound.
“She would occasionally give us Xeroxed pages with funny shapes on them,” Adelstein recalls. “I really liked it and she told me ‘Well, if you like it, you should show up to this church on a certain day,’ so I said ‘Okay!’
“So I showed up and found about a hundred people hunched over a big book, singing at the top of their lungs. It was phenomenal,” Adelstein says. “I stayed for an hour. It was the most amazing sound I had ever heard—it vibrated up my spinal column and then went away.”
Eventually, when Adelstein planned to move to Chicago, a city she had never lived in before, she eased her mother’s fears by telling her there was a shape note singing group in the city. “I have friends in Chicago, I just haven’t met them yet,” she remembers telling her mom.
When Adelstein moved to Hyde Park, she had to make sure her apartment would have a singing room. She explained to her neighbors that she would occasionally have people over to sing and it would “rock the entire building with nineteenth-century hymns in four-part harmony.” Luckily, no one was too concerned with this even though the sound could be heard from most parts of the building.
I am bewildered and stammer an answer to Adelstein’s question, something about not knowing what I sing, that I am just writing an article. But despite my trepidation, insistently, they sit me down next to Rachel with the tenors. I am handed a red book and someone calls out a number. Many singers know what song they want, and they will call by a number, which corresponds with the page number of the song.
“How about 163 Bottom! ‘China’!” Someone calls the next song.
For those who have learned to read music, the contents of the book will look vaguely familiar. There’s a staff, a time signature, a treble or bass clef. But the normal uniform circular notes are replaced with the four shapes.
Shape notes are designed to help people learn how to sight-read and read music more easily. The system is simple, using four basic shapes: a triangle, an oval, a rectangle and a diamond, exactly what was drawn on the tiny square of paper on the door. These shapes represent the notes of a four-note, old English system. The style was used by many itinerant early Americans and was brought to the South in the nineteenth century, where it began to be practiced widely amongst churches. The “sacred harp” in Sacred Harp refers to the human voice—the instrument we are all given at birth.
Each shape note song is sung starting with something that sounds like gibberish. As Kiri Miller, one of the founding members of the Hyde Park singing group titles one of her articles about Chicago shape note, you “first sing the notes.” It’s a mix of fa-sol-la-mi sung to the tune of the song, just without the lyrics. It’s hard to keep up at first, and seasoned singers say when you get lost, just sing “la” over and over—you’re right at least a quarter of the time.
“Most of the happiest sounding songs are about our impending death,” jokes Jim, one of the bass singers in Hyde Park.
“China” is one of those songs. The opening of the song asks: “Why do we mourn, departing friends?” Clearly, the music takes on seriously somber and morose spiritual tones. While many singers in the South sing religiously, the religiosity varies in the North. In cities like Chicago, many singers aren’t devout Christians, as the words to the songs might suggest. So, while singing the praises of Jesus, at least three of the Hyde Park singers are Jewish. It’s more of a spiritual, but not religious, experience for many, feeling the power of the mixing of voices.
Regardless, the singing is humble and conscious. There are no pretenses, no showing off, and when something doesn’t quite sound right, there’s no shame.
“That one chord, it sounded like a tectonic collision,” Jim laughs.
Here in Chicago, a revival group began to flourish in the 1980s and the effect can be seen in the communities that still assemble to sing today. Ted Mercer, a name that comes up constantly at singings in Hyde Park and the North Side, found a listing for a concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music for gospel and something called shape note. He convinced a neighbor to come along.
Ted’s eyes are light blue and sincere. His voice is tinged with a southern lilt that is deep and crackly, almost like a log on the fire. Out the window from the coffee shop where we sit, he points out Wood Street, where many shape note singers happened to reside at the beginning of the revival in Chicago.
One day, in November 1983, which Mercer remembers as one of the coldest days, there was a two-hour singing in a side room at a church in Lakeview. Of the seventeen active members at the time, sixteen showed up. That’s when he knew something amazing was happening. There was such a high degree of initial community, though musically, it didn’t happen so quickly.
It took a while to even get to one of the most fundamental parts of shape note singing–singing the notes. Southern singer Hugh McGraw heard that the Chicagoans were holding a convention up north. He told them “I’ll be there.” The Chicago singers hesitated a bit, and said, “We don’t sing the notes.” His response was simple: “You’ll learn.”
This was not the last time the North and South came together for a singing. Singers from Chicago frequently make the pilgrimage down to cities in Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia, among others. Regardless of location, the format remains mostly the same: sitting in a hollow square, typically in a church or large building. Lisa Cohen rattles off the singings she’s traveled to, from Seattle to Goshen to Wisconsin. Each location varies based on the people singing (Kalamazoo has the nicest organizers) and the location (Goshen has the most authentically southern church building—there isn’t even indoor plumbing).
The week after my first singing, as I am planning my next trip down to Hyde Park, I get a text message from a phone number I don’t recognize. It is Ted, asking if I need a ride down to the singing. He wants to go to support the host that night—it is her first time hosting.
While many of the “older singers,” those who started back in the eighties, don’t attend weekly singings, or smaller singings as much, Ted Mercer still attends North Side singings faithfully.
Ted and Marcia Johnson also had a hand in helping the revival in Chicago. We meet at a craft fair at a Catholic church. Despite the cold, grey morning, he wears a bright red Hawaiian shirt. Johnson often starts sentences and gets lost, getting carried away with describing what he sees for the future of shape note singing. Sue Kessell—that DJ who first told me about shape note singing’s perpetuation—tells me he’s about eighty years old, but that’s hard to believe. His soft raspy voice is kind and full of reminiscence, as if he’s reliving everything he tells me about. He’s congenial and touches my shoulder to emphasize his points.
Ted Johnson got into singing shape note as an “old folkie.” He taught guitar at the Old Town School and gradually discovered the traditional singing style. A few people he knew would bring songs to their singing and music group, but it didn’t necessarily grab hold of him immediately. He first listened to recordings that I too listened to when I found shape note singing, and he thought they were rough and strange.
But when Ted Johnson and other singers went down to the “heart of the matter” in the South, he found an impressive thing down a dirt road. Many Southern singings take place in small rural communities, but the music is nothing but small. “In the middle of that hollow square, the sound—it blew our minds,” he says. Ted Johnson says that the singing can lift you off your feet.
Perhaps these two experiences best exemplify what Ted Johnson tries to differentiate to me. The experience of being a listener, or audience, to shape note singing is nothing like actually participating. There are no rehearsals—that’s deferred gratification. No, every time a singing happens, it’s entirely about that moment. Everyone is facing inward, there’s no room for an audience. The music is participatory in its most basic form, and that’s were it truly derives its power.
Ted Johnson laments that he has dropped off in his singing lately. Mostly, he’ll attend conventions or all-day singings, rather than going to weekly or monthly smaller singings.
When I go to the North Side singing, the usual session is preceded by a brief introduction to shape notes and the tradition. The North Side group is known to Hyde Park singers as a more traditional group. Where the Hyde Park group is open to trying out new songs or singing a piece that lasts far longer than the typical short song, the North Siders stick to one book (Red) and generally everyone who calls must lead the song.
My in with the North Side group is Susan Geil. She’s a tall woman who is soft spoken and timid. Her start with shape note singing was similar to Ted Mercer’s. She had vaguely heard of shape note singing before but read an advertisement from the Old Town School of Folk Music.
“It just reached out and grabbed me. I felt, oh! This is perfect. I was drawn to it and started singing right away,” she says.
But even with her quiet nature, Geil feels comfortable and at home with shape note singers, be they in Chicago or elsewhere. Her favorite part about it all is just singing together–creating something so big and so loud and powerful. Just being a part of making that sound is enough.
“Part of it is a sense of accessibility. Even if you don’t have good pitch, there’s the assumption that it is your duty to make them feel welcome,” Kiri Miller says. “There’s a mutual obligation, a sense of tolerance. There’s a sense that you already have established groundwork,” despite the fact that any one singer might never speak to someone for weeks of going to singings.
The community is palpable. Barely knowing me, two singers offered me a ride, and Rachel Adelstein gave me contact information for singers in the new city where I’ll be living for the next few months. There’s something about getting together, out of the cold and into the warm apartment, sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers and creating an ungodly loud form of music. Just knowing that you can make something so powerful together tends to bond people.
Which is, in part, why departing a shape note singing is a sudden and lonely experience. Leaving a room bursting with sound, warmth and community and continuing on alone in the cold, silent night is jolting. My ears ring a bit and I find myself silently singing a few lines that stick in my head, swaying in time with the music that still hangs in my mind.
The 27th Annual Midwest Convention takes place April 28-29, 9:30am-3pm; Saturday at the Pulaski Park Fieldhouse, 1419 West Blackhawk; Sunday at the Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 North Knox