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Sunday Morning Music in the African American Church: Is Change Always Good?

By Kuanita E. Murphy, Contributing Editorial Writer (September 7, 2012)

Music is and has been an essential part of the African American worship experience.

Though the repertoires changed and adapted over time, in the beginning, there was no instrument, such as the piano. Members sang spirituals and “lined hymns,” a practice continued to the present. According to Albert Raboteau in his book titled Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South (1978), illiterate slaves developed spirituals that reflected their interpretation of the Christian Gospel. During worship, the spiritual was sung in its full communal and liturgical setting. In the upper northwest corner of Randolph County, Georgia, Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church has a musical history reflective of lined hymns and spirituals. Established in 1834, the first worship edifice was a bush arbor (1834-1866); the first wooden structure was built in 1867. Spirituals were often improvised. One elder member of Piney Grove confirmed this conclusion. Timothy Starling recalled: “Many of the songs that we sang in the cotton fields were made up there on the spot. It was all [sic] dependent upon what we felt like singing about that day.

“Lining out” hymns was a practice that dated back to 17th century English parish churches and still found in certain sects of both white and black Protestant churches. According to Melva Wilson Coston in African American Christian Worship, rather than keeping the Euro-American structure, African Americans improvised hymns in a folk-like manner, according to African aesthetic ideals.

Black Metered music was a special style of “metered hymn singing” beginning with, but not limited to, hymns by Isaac Watts, whose religious poetry became popularized during the Great Awakening religious movement of the 1730s. It was influenced by the a cappella “call-and-respond” technique used both in spirituals and in the “lining tradition” of early Euro-Americans. Metered hymn singing in African American worship, dating from early 19th century (ca. 1807 or 1810), was practiced mostly by African American Baptists in Southern rural communities.

As an aid to teaching the craft and improving skills, singing schools were developed. Singing school teachers used special tune books, which replaced standard music notation with a simplified system of four specially-shaped note heads. The purpose of the shape note singing method was to improve the quality of singing in congregations and to simplify the music notation from the standard forms so that the novice singer could learn to sing without a working knowledge of pitches or key signatures. The earlier four-shape system was gradually replaced beginning in the mid-1800s by a seven-shape system with a different shaped note head for each pitch of the major and minor scale.

According to Johnnie B. Jones (1911-2004), Piney Grove church music consisted of the seven shapenote tradition exclusively for a number of years.  A distinctive feature of shape note singing was that the singer sung the note names—do-re-mi-a-sol-la-ti-do—before singing the words to the song. Dr. R. Dortch, author of Short Talks on Music (1903) believed that it was important that the participant practice the scales frequently in order to sing the notes of a song. The seven shapenote music had two connected staffs for each line of music. The connected staffs were called the grand staff. On top were the soprano and alto lines, and the tenor and bass lines were on the lower staff. The music was sung in unaccompanied four-part harmony-tenor, bass, alto, and soprano.

New Englanders eventually abandoned the shape note and singing school tradition, but in the 1800s it gained a strong foothold in the South. By the late 1800s, formal singing conventions that incorporated the shape note tune books were held across the region, and became an important social and religious outlet for many communities, including those in Randolph County.

Today, the seven shape note tradition is a relic within the Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church. Individuals trained in the craft perform special shape note selections during commemorative occasions. Though lined hymns are still a part of the musical fabric of the church, hymns and contemporary gospel has become the mainstay within the worship experience.