Shape note music, most commonly known as Sacred Harp music (named after one of the most popular collections of this style), was originally designed to teach congregational singing that was more complex than what was being sung in the early 1700s. The shapes of the notes indicate the intervals between them in the scale, regardless of the key in which the song is written, and with some practice, this allows anyone to learn their part by simply reading the written music. Many of the songs that were written in the shape note style are still alive in some form in modern Protestant hymnals, although most churches and congregations no longer sing the four-part a cappella tunes as a part of worship.
For many years, shape note music was kept alive by small pockets of singers, mainly in the southern States. In recent years, there has been a revival of shape note singing beyond that region, with groups of singers gathering together regularly all over North America. The documentary Awake, My Soul tells the story of shape note music, from its humble beginnings as the first original American music to the modern revival and spread beyond the church doors.
The documentary provides a solid introduction to the history of shape note singing, covering the inspiration and some of the early composers and teachers. I particularly enjoyed learning more about William Billings, one of my favorite composers of shape note music. His tunes contain both complexity and beauty, and I never tire of singing them.
The tunes and the words are most often written by two different people. The words tend to be pulled from the Bible, most often the King James Bible due to the age and poetry of the language, and they are often from older hymns or poems written in the 1700s and 1800s. The music, on the other hand, comes from composers new and old. The documentary addresses this in an interview with one modern composer, Raymond C. Hamrick, who wrote the favorite tune "Lloyd" after learning the first part from a dream. Hamrick attributes most of his songwriting to the simplicity of the shape note system, and he cites several other composers of favorite tunes who also would have not likely written their songs had they not been allowed to work within the framework of that particular notational system.
The Sacred Harp is a collection of shape note songs that was originally organized and published by B. F. White in 1844. In 1991, the Sacred Harp Publishing company put out a revised edition that used modern printing techniques to clean up the text and notations, thus making it much easier to read than other shape note collections. This is the edition we see being used in the documentary, although there are other revisions and books that are popular with different groups of singers. Many of the members of the music committee that worked on the revised edition are featured in Awake, My Soul, and through their own words, we get a sense for their strong dedication to preserving this music and introducing it to new singers.
Aside from the music itself, the documentary explores aspects of the communities that have preserved this style of singing. Viewers are introduced to singers casually throughout the first part of the film, and about a third of the way through, the cultural aspects are brought to the fore-front. The voice-over provides information about structure of an all day singing (or singing school), as well as the connections that are made between singers at these events. With this kind of an introduction, new singers should feel less intimidated when they attend a large singing.
Most likely, the audience that will pick up this DVD will already be familiar with shape note singing. However, I think that anyone interested in Early American music should also take the time to view it. The filmmakers, both Sacred Harp singers themselves, have created a piece of work that, much like shape note music itself, is simultaneously utilitarian and glorious.