If you’re driving along Highway 94 west of Marthasville on March 7 or 8 and hear spirited singing coming from the picturesque white frame building of St. John’s Church of Christ in Pinckney, pull off the road, park on the grass, and come on in. You’ve stumbled upon the 30th annual Missouri State Sacred Harp Singing Convention, where the dispersed harmony of shape note singing fills the tiny church from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day.
The setting is appropriate for this a cappella music. The acoustics of this 1870s church are similar to the churches of Colonial New England where the music originated, as well as to the rural churches of the American South where the singing never entirely disappeared. This style of singing was rescued from oblivion when it was rediscovered by folkways enthusiasts some 50 years ago.
Sacred Harp refers to both the human voice and the name of the tune book, The Sacred Harp, first published in 1844, that is used. Another, even older, book called The Missouri Harmony was republished in 2005. Both books are used at the singing convention. Shape note refers to the different shapes of the four notes – fa, sol, la, mi – used in this style of music, which was designed to teach singing to people with no musical training.
First-time visitors may be surprised and confused by the singing, which reflects its origins as true folk music sung by ordinary people, without organ, piano or other instruments. The pews are arranged in a hollow square, with tenors in the front, altos in the back near the altar, and treble (soprano) and bass on the sides. Everyone faces the center, where the song leader stands and moves his/her arm up and down to keep time. Other singers join in, moving their arms to the rhythm, and often stomping their feet.
Songs begin with what sounds like gibberish to the uninitiated; this is “singing the notes” or singing the syllables of the shapes before singing the words of the song.
Everyone is invited to join in both singing and leading. Newcomers are encouraged to borrow a tune book and sing along, although if you prefer to just listen, that is fine. Shape note singing is for the joy of it -- although you might not realize that if you are paying close attention to the words. Many of the songs are about death, sin, repentance and suffering, but the delivery is loud and enthusiastic. For many people, there’s a religious aspect to the music, but for some it is purely about the enjoyment of singing.
A highlight of each day is the potluck “dinner on the grounds” served in the fellowship hall beside the church. There is no admission charge, but a free will offering is accepted.
St. John’s United Church of Christ is in Pinckney Township, 11.5 miles west of Marthasville on Highway 94. For information about the convention, visit www.stlfasola.org.