Shape-note singing in Letcher County, Ky —Submitted photos/ Malcolm Wilson
LEVERETT — It’s planned to be just a small piece of this weekend’s “Hands Across the Hills” cultural exchange with a dozen or so rural Kentucky ambassadors this weekend. Yet a brief concert of shape-note singing at an evening contradance may create a harmony all its own.
The weekend visit, which grew out of an effort following last November’s election to reach out to groups with different social and political views, will include a public community forum featuring admittedly liberal Leverett activists and conservative guests from Kentucky. The Leverett Alliance organized the weekend to discover common ground and to build solidarity between people at both ends of the political spectrum.
The public event is Saturday from 9 to 11:30 a.m. at Leverett Elementary School.
The forum, with presentations by a dozen or so members of a Letcher County, Ky., delegation and 18 members of the Leverett Alliance Bridging Committee, will be followed by a Leverett Community Chorus concert of songs celebrating Appalachian and New England traditions and a community potluck featuring local fare from noon to 1 p.m.
“We plan to enhance our understanding of each other in a series of structured dialogues, as well as share activities that include participatory theater, an art project on ancestry, music jams, meals, sightseeing in the Pioneer Valley, and home stays,” according to organizer Paula Green.
The forum will be followed Saturday evening at Montague Common Hall with a potluck dinner at 6, followed by a 7 p.m. contradance for which a limited number of tickets are being sold at the North Leverett Village Co-Op and the Leverett Public Library, as well as at the door.
It’s at the dance that Ben Fink, who has helped coordinate the Kentucky end of the visit, plans to lead a brief demonstration of shape-note singing, which has its origins in New England, but also has a connection with singers in the South.
In fact, “Southern Harmony,” first published in 1835, was a collection of shape-note “hymns, psalms, odes and anthems” using the simple four-shape notation system that developed three decades earlier in New England to make hymns by New England composers Isaac Watts, William Billings, Northfield’s own Timothy Swan and others available to singers not trained in classical musical notation.
Northern Harmony was originally published in 1805, according to ethnomusicologist Tim Eriksen of Amherst, who’s a regular singer at weekly Tuesday night sings in Northampton’s Helen Hills Hills Chapel.
The tradition of using triangle, oval, square and diamond shapes to represent different tones for singers migrated from New England to the South, and the southern shape-note book, “Kentucky Harmony,” was published in 1817, according to Eriksen.
Although the music — also known as “sacred-harp” singing, from the 1844 songbook of that name — has “a deep history in Kentucky,” he says, it’s mostly been Alabama, Georgia and other parts of the South that have carried on an active schedule of statewide sings of the four-note style, with its distinctive interweaving of four melodic lines.
Fink — a transplant from Connecticut who first learned shape-note singing five years ago in Minnesota and stresses he’s not an expert — said most of the shape-note singing in eastern Kentucky has grown in recent decades. (It’s also gained renewed popularity back home in New England, with sings held regularly around the region.)
Over the past couple of years, Fink has helped organize twice-monthly shape-note sings in Whitesville because the only regularly scheduled ones that existed were across the state in Louisville, Lexington and Berea. In August, he helped organize an East Kentucky weekend-long shape-note sing that drew 65 singers to Letcher County from eight states.
“We are singing our love of God and even for those that are not religious in it, we’re singing for the love of something greater than ourselves, which is this community, and this tradition and whatever other forces have brought us together,” Fink told a television reporter at the event.
Together with Gwen Johnson, who also began offering a monthly seven-shape sing in nearby Hemphill, he plans to lead shape-note singing Saturday evening for anyone who wants to listen or join in.
When the regular sings began in Letcher County with the modal-sounding four-shape hymns, Fink said it was a bit of a challenge, but at the more familiar harmonic seven-shape singing that some had grown up with in their churches, “Some people’s eyes lit up: ‘I can do this; I know this.’”
Shape note singing, he added, isn’t typically performed as much as it is a participatory style. And while most of the visitors from Kentucky don’t necessarily take part in the sings he and Johnson have organized back home, he imagines that the seven-shape songs, in particular, will be accessible to the Letcher County and Franklin County folks alike.
“When we start singing, I imagine they’re going to join right in,” he said.