Shape Notes, Billings, and American Modernisms

Shape Notes, Billings, and American Modernisms

From Charles Seeger to his contemporaries William Schuman and Henry Cowell in the 1940s, through John Cage and William Duckworth in the 1970s and 1980s, to young composers like David T. Little and Gabriel Kahane today, the American shape-note tradition has been a steady source for reexamination and inspiration.

Written By

Will Robin

“For here is true style!” declared Charles Seeger in 1939.[1] Several years after abandoning his career as an American ultra-modernist composer, Seeger had discovered the shape-note hymns of 19th-century tune books like The Southern Harmony and The Sacred Harp.

Seeger’s proclamation marked the origins of a lineage of American musicians who sought out a maverick impulse in native hymnody, forging connections between the rule breaking of Revolutionary-era composers like William Billings and the rule breaking of the 20th century. From Seeger to his contemporaries William Schuman and Henry Cowell in the 1940s, through John Cage and William Duckworth in the 1970s and 1980s, to young composers like David T. Little and Gabriel Kahane today, the American shape-note tradition has been a steady source for reexamination and inspiration.

Tracing the appropriation of this strain of American hymnody in the 20th and 21st centuries is an intriguing tale, but it requires a bit of historical parsing before it begins.

In the decades preceding the American Revolution, a style of native sacred music developed in the colonies. Protestant churches across New England began singing from books of hymn tunes published in America by local musicians like William Billings, Jeremiah Ingalls, and Andrew Law, rather than the European standards of previous songsters.

Many of these American composers were not professionals (Billings worked as a tanner) and had no European musical training. American composers wrote each individual line of a three- or four-part hymn separately, developing an unconventional style full of “mistakes” like parallel and open fifths. And if the open fifth was the emblematic sound of the so-called First New England School, then the boisterous fuguing tune—in which, after a conventionally homophonic setting of a hymn text, singers rollick through a fast, imitative second verse—was its emblematic form. The freedom of the American Revolution had its own sonic markers, its own distinct musical style. Hymns like Billings’s “Chester” became Revolutionary anthems; Paul Revere engraved Billings’s first songbook, the New England Psalm-Singer.

Paul Revere's engraved frontispiece for Billings's New England Psalm Singer

Paul Revere’s engraved frontispiece for Billings’s New England Psalm Singer (1770).
(The complete book is available for download from IMSLP.)

But elitist musicians and clergy soon sought to replace that rustic native style, and Billings was gradually phased out in favor of European alternatives. Right around the same time, another pioneering development occurred in American music. In 1801, William Little and William Smith published The Easy Instructor, the first hymnal to utilize shape notes. The shape-note system assigned different note heads to specific solfège syllables, so that singers could develop a simple, visual method for sight reading music.
Shape Note Rudiments 1 of 2

Shape Note Rudiments 2 of 2

From the 1860 edition of The Sacred Harp

As an educational tool, shape notes caught on quickly. But as native hymnody was forced from New England by Europe-minded reformers, so too were shape notes. In the first few decades of the 19th century, shape notes and Billings-style congregational music moved out West and South, becoming a local tradition in states like Alabama and Kentucky, whose musicians published their own tune books.

The music of those compilations was Billings-inspired, but also incorporated folk and gospel traditions. Thus, the most famous shape-note tune books like The Southern Harmony (1835) and The Sacred Harp (1844) were commercial products, printed in large quantities and distributed widely, but also part of local folk culture.

Singing from tune books like The Sacred Harp is an intriguing experience. There is, for starters, the unusual sound of music inspired by both the South and the First New England School. Then there is the singing of the shapes: since the early 19th century, singers would first read through the tune on solfège syllables for practice before adding its Biblical text. Finally, the shape-note practice itself has its own oral culture that creates a unique sonic space. Participants sit in a square, facing each other, and belt the hymns at the top of their lungs. It’s loud and entirely participatory—there’s no audience to speak of.

The Early Revivalists

White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands

The first edition of George Pullen Jackson’s White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (published in 1933). The book was subsequently re-printed by Dover Publications (1965) and Kessinger Publishing, LLC (2007).

The composers who drew upon these customs had a more conventional, concert hall audience in mind. Seeger and his contemporaries learned of shape notes—almost entirely unknown to the Northeast for more than a century—via the musicologist George Pullen Jackson. Jackson’s 1933 White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands launched the modern revival of The Sacred Harp and the cultures of the deep South that sang from it, which Jackson referred to as a “lost tonal tribe” of “fasola folk” (an unfortunately primitivist description).[2]

Charles Seeger was one of those re-discoverers, as was his wife, the great composer and ethnomusicologist Ruth Crawford Seeger. In 1937, Crawford arranged a set of twenty-two American folk songs for piano; in a preface to the compilation, Crawford drew strong parallels between the shape notes of the past and the modernism of the present:

Curiously enough, there is part-singing widespread through the southeastern states, and has been for the past hundred years, which revels in these characteristics of “modern music.”[3]

As Judith Tick has pointed out, Crawford adopts the Bartókian conception of the vernacular—abrasive and modern rather than simple and folksy. In seeking out this forgotten repertory, she unveils a past canon of modernists.
Other American composers would do the same. Virgil Thomson once remarked:

When you reach down into your subconscious, you get certain things. When Aaron [Copland] reaches down, he doesn’t get cowboy tunes, he gets Jewish chants. When I reach down I get Southern hymns.[4]

Thomson’s subconscious reaching manifested in his score for the 1937 W.P.A. film The River. In the mid-‘30s, Thomson met George Pullen Jackson and heard his field recordings of Southern singers. Soon after, the composer acquired a copy of The Southern Harmony and began toying with utilizing a few of its hymns in his music.

The River mixes shape-note hymns alongside references to various other American popular idioms. As Joanna Smolko points out in her dissertation, Thomson not only drew upon five different hymns, but also retained their musical language, emphasizing the unusual harmonies (due to their line-by-line composition, tunes are often built on stacks of fourths and fifths) and “mistaken” voice-leading of parallel fifths and octaves. When the film’s narrator describes the post-Civil War destruction of the South, Thomson weaves in the doleful hymn “Mount Vernon”; he retains its sober fuguing tune as well, setting it delicately in the winds.

Pare Lorentz’s film The River (released on February 4, 1938) has been posted to YouTube by the Pare Lorentz Film Center at the FDR Presidential Library and Public.Resource.Org.

Aaron Copland also reached down and found Southern hymns, though with a tinge of the Jewish heritage to which Thomson alluded. In 1951, Copland visited Israel for the first time and embraced a latent Zionism. Around the same time, he began researching American folk music for his set of Old American Songs and read Jackson’s work.

In the Old American Songs, Copland harmonized the tune “Zion’s Walls,” printed first in the shape-note book The Social Harp. In the piano accompaniment, Copland preserved the original’s piquant pentatonicism. He also scrubbed out the references to Jesus in the original hymn text, conflating the Zion of the text with contemporary Israel and, somewhat unusually, wrapping together Southern hymnody with his own Jewish identity.

Grounding the restoration of shape-note hymnody in contemporary national issues, however, was par for the course in Copland’s day. Following Jackson’s research, various musicians resurrected the so-called “white spirituals” in a grand celebration of Americanism in the World War II era, a tale documented in Annegret Fauser’s recent study Sounds of War: Music in the United States During World War II.

Beginning in the late 1930s, scholar-musicians like Carleton Sprague Smith and Elie Siegmeister created a mythic American musical past for a patriotic present. Siegmeister toured across the country with his American Ballad Singers, an ensemble that purported to perform “native American songs” that forged “a link between American music and the struggle for freedom that has never been broken.”[5] Fauser relates this trend to a broader, international interest in cultural archaisms in the 1930s, a search for national roots in American art.

Implicit in this development was a whitening of folk music. Fauser writes that the “turn to an archaic heritage during the war years brought about a silencing of the African American idioms that had been appropriated—though not always without controversy—by musicians in the 1920s and early ‘30s as markers of an American identity.”[6] On a more global scale, Fauser also points out that the turn towards the Yankee tunesmiths of the First New England School were part of a worldwide neoclassicism: Billings was the closest thing we had to a Monteverdi, the American Ballad Singers our early music movement.

Composers took up this cause not just by performing the old hymns anew, but also by dramatizing their musical processes via the appropriation of the fuguing tune. Imitating Billings was the name of the game. Otto Luening wrote a Prelude to a Hymn Tune by Willing Billings (1937, published in 1943); William Schuman composed his William Billings Overture (premiered in 1944 in an open-air wartime concert); and Ross Lee Finney provided a Hymn, Fuguing, and Holiday that recast the Billings tune “Berlin” (perhaps an ironic use of the name of the German capitol in 1943).

Fuguing tunes represented an archaism that functioned as wholly American, a polyphonic canon but one viewed as distinct from any European counterpart. In a written introduction to a series of punchy orchestral variations on “Chester” (part of his New England Triptych), Schuman called Billings the “father of New England music” whose music “gradually fell into disfavor.” It fell into disfavor because it was outpaced by imported European music—a powerful connection to the past for American composers asserting a national school.

The grand champion of this inheritance was Henry Cowell, who over the course of twenty years wrote eighteen Hymn and Fuguing Tunes for various ensembles. (Ten of his twenty completed symphonies also incorporate aspects of the form.) Cowell solidified the connections between archaic past and modernist present, imagining an unbroken line from Billings to Ives in the same manner as Crawford.

In an introduction to the first Hymn and Fuguing Tune, written for symphonic band, Cowell wrote that the work was:

written in a manner which is frankly influenced by the early American style of Billings and Walker. However, the early style is not exactly imitated, nor are any of the tunes and melodies taken from these early masters. Rather I asked myself the question, what would happen in America if this fine, serious early style had developed? [This work] which uses old modes [and] open chords…is a modern revision of this old style. [7]

In the 1940s, Cowell was transitioning away from his more severely experimental style, and this “fine, serious early style” offered a different path. Cowell’s modality and lack of accidentals imitate the open sound of the Southern Harmony tunes, and shape this far-reaching but neglected repertoire.

Notable here is also that Cowell conflates Billings with the Southern composer William Walker. Walker, born half a century after Billings, wrote shape-note hymns and compiled The Southern Harmony (Sidney Cowell, Henry’s wife, introduced him to Walker’s music and The Southern Harmony; Henry probably gained knowledge of Billings, as many of his contemporaries did, in Clarence Dickinson’s 1940 publication of three of his fuguing tunes). This amalgamation of Southern and New England traditions still marks discussions of shape notes and The Sacred Harp today. The midcentury modernists didn’t distinguish between these separate strands of hymnody, instead imagining a single trajectory that could reach into the present.

Bicentennial Celebrations

Following the wartime resurgence was a 30-year lull. The next major revival of shape-note and Yankee hymns took place in the years around the American Bicentennial of 1976. The national celebrations of the Revolution were the motivation for a great deal of early American music scholarship; they also inspired many new compositions. Alongside a slew of commissions from various institutions, academic initiatives paved the way for a grand return of hymnody. In the years surrounding the Bicentennial, Americanist organizations like the Institute for Studies in American Music, the Sonneck Society for American Music, New World Records, and Recent Researches in American Music emerged—all participated in resurrecting Yankee or Southern hymnody. (The American Musicological Society also launched a critical edition of Billings’s music.)

Just as in the 1930s, these scholarly ventures fueled composition as well. Numerous bicentennial works, from Leonard Bernstein’s Songfest to Elliott Carter’s A Symphony of Three Orchestras, emerged in the mid-‘70s. In 1974, six major American orchestras, in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Arts, commissioned several composers to write Bicentennial works, including one by John Cage.

Cage Apartment House

In 1995, three years after John Cage’s death, Mode issued the recording he supervised of Apartment House 1776.

In creating his Bicentennial work, Apartment House 1776, Cage investigated various strands of the American past in an attempt to dramatize the multiplicity of communities from two hundred years ago. Four singers represent the Protestant, Sephardic, American Indian, and African-American musical traditions, accompanied by instrumental music based on the Yankee tunes of Billings and his contemporaries such as Andrew Law and Supply Belcher.

In an attempt to “imitate that old music rather than copy it,” Cage was forced to reckon with his distaste for harmony. (You can’t really deal with hymnody any other way.)[8] Cage tinkered with various methods of subtraction, removing individual voices to create ghosts of the rustic harmony, eventually settling on chance procedures to expand and contract certain notes. The result, Cage said, was that:

The cadences and everything disappeared; but the flavor remained. You can recognize it as eighteenth century music; but it’s suddenly brilliant in a new way.[9]

The explorations of Apartment House 1776 led to several subsequent works based on the First New England School, including Quartets I-VIII, Hymns and Variations, and Thirteen Harmonies. (For a particularly enchanting recent interpretation of Cage’s hymn settings, listen to the 2010 Wergo album Melodies and Harmonies, performed by Annelie Gahl on violin and Klaus Lang on electric piano.)

In Some of the Harmony of Maine, an organ work in which three assistants pull out random stops, Cage plays with the echoes of thirteen hymns extracted from a 1794 tune book compiled by Supply Belcher. The occasional fully-voiced major chord appears wholly alien; the bucolic repetitions of the fuguing tunes sound frozen in time, shells of their former selves.

Cage, though, did not seem to demonstrate an interest in shape-note tune books; he stuck strictly with the earliest era of native hymnody. Shape notes returned to the American concert hall in another work inspired by the Bicentennial, albeit five years later: William Duckworth’s Southern Harmony. Duckworth was the first to not only draw upon the harmonies of the shape-note tune books, but also the actual manner in which they were performed: unlike the music of Thomson or Copland, Southern Harmony actually includes the shapes themselves.


In 1996, Lovely Music, Ltd. released a recording of William Duckworth’s Southern Harmony performed by the Gregg Smith Singers.

Duckworth’s engagement with shape notes grew out of a post-Bicentennial awakening among folk revivalists. Neely Bruce, the composer, conductor, pianist, and American music scholar, had started his own choirs to sing shape notes at Wesleyan College, and he commissioned Duckworth to write a choral work. (Bruce has incorporated shape notes into his own music as well.)
Duckworth had childhood experiences singing shape-note hymns in rural North Carolina, and had reencountered the music in the singings that Bruce led. While on sabbatical, he engaged with the original Southern Harmony tune book as a whole:

I would begin each day by singing through Southern Harmony a line at a time for an hour or more. At first I did it to familiarize myself with the music, but by the third or fourth time through it became more of a meditation.[10]

Book I of Duckworth’s Southern Harmony—he composed four books, with twenty pieces total—opens with the plaintive hymn “Consolation,” set in straightforward homophonic fashion. The music then transitions into a wistfully repetitive gloss on the tune, with the singers intoning the shape-note solfège syllables instead of its solemn text. The modular repeats of the syllables—Duckworth reiterates short phrases several times before moving on—recalls the post-minimalism of the composer’s earlier Time Curve Preludes, but also hints towards an even more intriguing predecessor. There is a looming work in postwar American music that also utilizes singers quickly repeating solfège syllables: Einstein on the Beach. Here, Duckworth conflates two separate streams of American maverick music, equating Glass’s repeated syllables with those of William Walker’s shape-note compilation.

Shape Notes in Brooklyn

Today’s young musicians don’t seem particularly interested in the Billings strain or the patriotic fervor of the Yankee tunesmiths and the Bicentennial that renewed them. They are, instead, children of the 1970s revivalists—the most literal example being folk singer Sam Amidon. Amidon’s parents actually sang in the Word of Mouth chorus, a revivalist group whose 1979 Nonesuch album Rivers of Delight brought shape notes to national attention; today, he performs his own quirky reworkings of shape-note hymns.
Composers Gabriel Kahane, Matt Marks, and David T. Little have connected musically with the written artifacts of the shape-note heritage—the books and tunes themselves—as well as contemporary oral cultures. You can sing from The Sacred Harp in meetings in most major American cities today and connect with a vibrant community of singers on the website Now that Sufjan Stevens does it, shape-note singing has lost the archaic significance it had for Seeger and Cowell and has instead become just another unusual strain of Americana.

In Marks’s pop opera The Little Death Vol. 1, released as an album on New Amsterdam in 2010, shape notes function as a kind of disruptive speaking-in-tongues. Towards the end of the song “Dear,” soprano Mellissa Hughes sings part of “When God Dips His Love in my Heart,” a Baptist hymn, and then begins singing the shapes of “What Wondrous Love Is This,” a staple of the Sacred Harp repertoire, over an electro-pop accompaniment. It’s a wholly irreverent appropriation of the tradition—Marks wrote in an email that “I really just wanted to mix shape-note singing with J-Pop style beats and synths”—and demonstrates the versatility with which today’s composers play with the past. Here, there is no attempt to erect a canon of American music stretching across the centuries; “Wondrous Love” merely fits into the eclectic narrative that Marks shapes.

Kahane’s use of shape-note hymnody, though, does resonate with some of the democratic zeal of the 1930s renaissance, especially since it is in the context of dramatizing that very historical era. In the midst of Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States, a work composed for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra which draws on the Federal Writers’ Project American Guide series, Kahane quotes a description of Sacred Harp singing from the Alabama guide in a spoken text. The score then instructs the orchestra players who accompany Kahane, to stand and belt out the fuguing tune “Marlborough,” singing solfège shapes followed by words.

Kahane’s score refers to this as a “Sacred Harp hymn,” though the nomenclature isn’t quite accurate; “Marlborough” dates back to 1793 and was composed by Abraham Wood. (It just happens to have found its most prominent place in The Sacred Harp.) This conflation of the First New England School repertoire with its role in the later shape-note tradition is a common one today. In an interview, Kahane told me that the “the populist and democratic nature of shape-note singing” meshed with the broader message of his Guide: “There’s something about how unadorned it is that I find really moving.” That democracy, too, can be found in the music of Wood, who drummed in the American Revolution.

David T. Little found a different kind of energy in the unadorned quality of shape-note singing. As part of a 2012 multimedia concert focused on 19th-century Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and Brooklyn Philharmonic performed Am I Born, Little’s extensive cantata that takes the shape note hymn “Idumea” as a point of departure. Little had become fascinated with the brash singing style of Sacred Harp revivalist groups, which he once called “death metal for choir.” In an interview with I Care If You Listen, Little said that he “followed some of the part-writing rules of The Sacred Harp,” writing cadences that leave out the third and playing with parallel fifths. (Little actually wondered if he himself was a descendant of William Little, the co-inventor of the shape-note system.) The choir opens by singing a visceral setting of the doleful “Idumea” (its first line is “Am I born to die?”), and Little’s buzzy, post-minimalist orchestral writing channels the furor of the Sacred Harp experience.

David T. Little - Am I Born (opening page)

The opening page of David T. Little’s Am I Born. © 2011 by David T. Little and reprinted with his permission. (Click image to enlarge.)

“Idumea” is a Southern classic, probably derived by composer Ananias Davisson from a folk song and first printed in Davisson’s The Kentucky Harmony, one of the earliest Southern shape-note tune books. Intriguingly, though Little mimicked aspects of the shape-note tradition, he actually sought out a source that does not fully embrace that sound. The earliest printings of “Idumea,” from The Kentucky Harmony to the first edition of The Sacred Harp, are written for three voices. The dominant sonority of its beginning, on the word “Am,” is the open fifth of Billings tradition. But more recent revisions of The Sacred Harp added a fourth voice, replacing the open sound with full triads; Little’s setting of “Idumea” retains that fourth voice, making the hymn less pentatonic than conventionally tonal.


The opening of the three-voice version of “Idumea” from the 1860 edition of The Sacred Harp.
(The complete 1860 edition as well as a later 1911 edition is available from IMSLP.)

When Seeger declared that The Sacred Harp represented a “true style,” he was equating the uncanny part-writing of three-voice Southern hymns with the modernisms of his era. But with that fourth voice, Little’s “Am I Born” points towards a new modernist tradition, built not on some archaic American past but on a living present. In absorbing the style and sound of Sacred Harp as sung today, Little’s generation recasts a vibrant tradition for a new audience, pointing towards a true style for the 21st century.


1. Charles Seeger, “Contrapuntal Style in the Three-Voice Shape-Note Hymns.” The Musical Quarterly 26, no. 4 (Oct., 1940): p. 488.

2. George Pullen Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (Hatboro: Folklore Assciates, 1964), pp. 4 and 160.

3. Quoted in Judith Tick, Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 242.

4. Quoted in Joanna Ruth Smolko, Reshaping American Music: The Quotation of Shape-Note Hymns by Twentieth-Century Composers (PhD diss., University of Pittsburgh, 2009), p. 16.

5. Quoted in Annegret Fauser, Sounds of War: Music in the United States During World War II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 144.

6. Fauser, p. 146.

7. Wayner Shirley, “The Hymns and Fuguing Tunes,” in The Whole World of Music: A Henry Cowell Symposium, edited by David Nicholls (Amsterdam: Overseas Publishers Association, 1997), p. 96.

8. Kenneth Silverman, Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010), p. 297.

9. Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 90.

10. Quoted in Smolko, pp. 172-173.