Not much is left in the township of Pinckney along Highway 94 in southern Warren County. You may never have even heard of it, but this rural community, originally located in the bottomland of the Missouri River across from New Haven, was once the county seat for Montgomery County, until nearly all of the town was washed away by floodwaters and further doomed by a changing river current.
Yet next weekend, people from all over Missouri and beyond will meet at St. John’s United Church of Christ-Pinckney for the 28th annual Missouri State Sacred Harp Singing Convention.
They are drawn to this circa 1870 white clapboard church in part because of its colonial New England appearance — fitting of this early American form of music, singers say — but even more so because of the acoustics.
“When you’re in that building, in the middle of the (Sacred Harp singing) square . . . the music just goes right up your spine,” said the Rev. Jeanne Lischer, pastor at St. John’s UCC.
Paul Figura, a member of the St. Louis Shape-Note Singers, one of several hundred active shape note singing groups across the country and around the world, said the hard surface interior amplifies the sound.
“It’s a barrel ceiling that serves as a reflector,” he commented. “When we’re singing, it brings all of that sound back to us.”
The Pinckney church is an ideal location for other reasons too, including logistics.
Today membership there is only around 15 to 20 members, the Rev. Jeanne noted, so worship services are held just twice a month, on the first and third Sundays.
That means the annual convention, always held the second weekend of March, doesn’t disrupt any worshipping.
“Also, the pews can be moved around,” said the Rev. Jeanne, explaining that in Sacred Harp, or shape-note singing, singers are arranged in an “open square” manner, all facing toward the center.
There is no charge to attend the convention, and newcomers who are interested or just curious are welcome.
Anyone who attends, however, is asked to bring along a dish or two to share for the traditional “dinner on the grounds,” served at noon in St. John’s fellowship building.
The two-day convention will be held Saturday and Sunday, March 9-10, from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. both days.
St. John’s United Church of Christ is located approximately 12 miles west of Marthasville on Highway 94.
What Is Shape-Note Singing?
If you are not at all familiar with shape-note singing, Figura isn’t surprised. Shape note singing was created centuries ago for people who did not have a musical background but wanted an opportunity to sing, but it’s less common today, even if it’s still quite popular in some places.
“Shape note singing was developed in Colonial America with the thought that many churches didn’t have any musical instruments,” said Figura, explaining it was a way to teach sight-reading.
“For many people, this is the first place they find their voice.”
Anyone who is a fan of the movie “The Sound of Music” may know a little something about shape note singing and not even realize it. The seven “syllables” Maria teaches the von Trapp children — “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti” — are part of shape note singing too, but only four syllables are used — fa, sol, la, mi.
In shape-note singing, the music is written in standard notation, except that the notes have four different shapes — triangle (fa), oval (sol), rectangle (la) and diamond (mi) — corresponding to the correct syllable.
When singing shape-note hymns, it is practice first to “sing the notes,” said Figura, which means to sing the fa-sol-la syllables corresponding to the shapes in the music before singing the text.
This serves to set the tune in memory and enables persons to more easily sight-read previously unseen or unheard music, he explained.
To inexperienced listeners it may sound like gibberish, admits Figura, “but it’s a very good tool for us.”
With each song, a member of the group will stand in the center of the “open square” to lead, raising and lowering one arm to help keep time with the music.
The music shape note singers sing comes from “The Sacred Harp,” a hymnal originally published in 1844 and in continuous use ever since.
“What we are doing is not re-enacting,” said Figura. “It’s a continuing practice.
“This is a method that has been passed down in communities and in families.”
Newcomers to shape-note singing shouldn’t expect to be proficient after just a few songs or even after a few sessions, said Figura, noting it’s not uncommon still to feel uncertain after several months. He laughed a little, saying visitors are usually easy to spot.
“Singers walk in with a book in their hands, but visitors walk in with this bewildered look on their faces,” he commented.
“We try to help them along. We give them a loaner book to look at while we’re singing.”
Not a Performance
Shape-note singing is not intended to be a performance where singers sing songs for an audience who will applaud. “The way we arrange ourselves is indicative of not having an audience,” Figura remarked.
Rather, people who participate in shape-note singing do it for the sheer enjoyment of the experience.
“Some of us are drawn to it because of the interesting melodies and blend of notes,” said Figura. “Others find the verses, the words we sing, intriguing.
“Everyone enjoys the fellowship we share.”
Shape-note singers don’t rehearse, as a typical choir might preparing for a performance. But there are various shape-note singing groups that meet regularly to sing together.
In addition to singers from Missouri and surrounding states, some will be coming from as far away as Georgia, Alabama, Washington state, and Canada to sing at St. John’s UCC-Pinckney next weekend.
There is no registration necessary. Anyone can show up.
“We never know who’s coming until they’re here,” Figura remarked.
Typical turnouts are for 150 people or so. One year a couple from England were in attendance. They had built their vacation around several shape-note singing conventions they wanted to attend.
“We singers, we like to sing at home, but we love to travel to other conventions,” said Figura. “There are some being held somewhere every weekend.
“It’s never a case of is there a convention, but which ones do I want to go to?”
For more information about the 28th Annual Missouri State Sacred Harp Singing Convention, people may contact Figura at 314-962-4870 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or the Rev. Jeanne Lischer, of St. John’s UCC, at 636-932-4646 or visit http://tinyurl.com/pinckney for a map.