Shape Notes are a way to lead groups in singing with an alternative music notation, which presumably is easier for untrained musicians to follow. It began to be used early in the 1800’s and was especially popular in the South after the Civil War and into the 20th century. Many old hymnals used the shape note system.
Frank Alexander, (1880-1945) my paternal grandfather, was a shape note singer and song leader in the First Presbyterian Church at Vass, N. C.
My Aunt Pollie, Frank’s oldest daughter, told me that when she was small, her father took her and her siblings to singing school in the summertime. The school was held when their work on the farm slowed down for a time between planting and harvesting. Pollie was born in 1913. My father, who was born in 1925, and his younger siblings had no recollection of singing school, though Dad remembered that his father led the singing in Sunday School.
In The Pilot newspaper of Vass, I found articles from 1922 and 1923 about local singing schools. Cypress Presbyterian Church seems to have been a major venue.
In February of 1922, this: “The people of Johnsonville are having a nice singing school at Cameron Hill Church every Saturday night, opening at 7 o’clock. Everybody is cordially invited to come.”
On a different note, in Jackson Springs, west of Vass and Southern Pines, a resort hotel announced its annual summer opening, with a dance. “Music was furnished by the Original Virginia Serenaders; this orchestra is composed of native Richmond boys who play the piano, two violins, two saxophones and drums.” However, the article mentioned that the musicians studied at the Dayton Conservatory in Va., whose teachers presented singing schools in the local area. (The founders of that school traveled to present ten-day singing schools and three-week music courses for people without the means and time to study formal music.)
In July of 1923, The Pilot reported that Mrs. A. K. Thompson and children of Vass went to the singing school at Cypress Church. Johnsonville, Cameron Hill Presbyterian Church, and Cypress Presbyterian Church are all located in Harnett County, across the Moore County line, and a short distance from Vass.
The obituary of one of Frank Alexander’s friends, John Arch Keith, who was a singing school teacher, implies that by 1934 singing schools were something known only to the older members of the community.
Mr. Keith, a farmer and businessman, was born in 1859 in Moore County. He was a deacon of Cypress Presbyterian Church, but his funeral was held at Vass Presbyterian, and Frank Alexander was an honorary pall bearer.
“Music for the service was by the community young people’s choir, assisted by several adult voices, and one of the numbers used was ‘From Every Stormy Wind That Blows,’ sung to one of Mr. Keith’s favorite tunes, ‘Retreat.'”
“Mr. Keith was greatly interested in music and derived great pleasure from teaching what the older people know as ‘singing schools.’”
William Franklin Alexander came from a musical family. His uncle, Oswald A. Alexander of Mecklenburg County was a singing school master. Frank and his brothers, Oswald and Oscar, sang harmony while their sister Belle played piano. They had many other musical relatives and descendants.
Sources: The Sacred Harp, (Sacred Harp Publishing Co., 1991) p. 470; David Warren Steel, “Shape-note singing,” https://www.britannica.com/art/shape-note-singing, accessed 15 Jan. 2018; “Cypress Creek Items,” The Pilot newspaper, Vass, N. C., 10 Feb. 1922; “Jackson Spring News: The Season’s Opening,” The Pilot, 9 June 1922, p. 1; “Vass and Community,” The Pilot, 20 July 1923, p. 5; James R. Goff, Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel (Chapel Hill: The University of N. C. Press, 2002) pp. 64-65, accessed 16 Jan. 2018 at books.google.com; “An Old-Timer Passes: John Arch Keith,” The Pilot, 17 Aug. 1934, p.1.
Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander. All rights reserved.