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Shape-Note Singing: Resources in the American Folklife Center

This research guide focuses on the shape-note singing tradition in the United States as it is documented in the collections of the American Folklife Center and across the Library of Congress.


Howard W. Marshall, photographer. Sacred Harp singing at church at Georgia Agrirama agricultural museum, Tifton, Georgia. May 1, 1977. South-Central Georgia Folklife Project Collection (AFC 1982/010). Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

This research guide provides an introduction to the documentation of shape-note singing and the publication of the Sacred Harp through activities such as fieldwork, interpretation and programming in the collections of the American Folklife Center and other units at the Library of Congress. These collection materials demonstrate the long history of the practice, the diversity of the people who participate in shape-note singings, and highlights songs in the popular imagination.

First published in 1844, the official Sacred Harp songbook by the Sacred Harp Publishing Co. is only updated once per generation, allowing the melodies and arrangements of songs to maintain their shape over the centuries. The most recent publication was released in 1991 (new edition forthcoming) and the hymnal features songs in the shape-note style. Shaped-notes were first introduced in singing schools, which were created as an effort to reform congregational singing in Protestant churches. While other systems of shape-note singing existed, the most popular—and prevailing—style emerged in 1801. Recorded during the 1942 Sacred Harp Convention in Birmingham, Alabama, Paine Denson, an editor of the 1936 edition of the book, explains in the first audio clip below the Sacred Harp and how it preserves tradition. Recordings from the convention are available in the Alan Lomax and George Pullen Jackson collection of Sacred Harp music collection and a copy of the 1936 "Denson book" are available at the American Folklife Center.

Many of the resources featured in this guide include audio recordings of shape-note singing. Find collections online at the Library of Congress in the Digital Collections section. In addition, over 150 recordings of shape-note singing from the American Folklife Center archive are available from the Association for Cultural Equity's Lomax Digital Archive.

Known as "New Britain" since the first edition of The Sacred Harp in 1844, "Amazing Grace" is the most famous hymn included and is highlighted by the Library of Congress in the Amazing Grace Collection. These items have been collected from several divisions in the Library of Congress, including the Music Division, the American Folklife Center, the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, and the Rare Books Division. It features a recording also made at the 1942 Sacred Harp Convention in Birmingham, Alabama that showcases the shape-note singing style. The second audio clip gives an example of participants singing "fa so la mi" as they begin to sing as a way to practice the tune.

Accessing Ethnographic Collections at the Library of Congress

The following guide offers general research strategies for use of the American Folklife Center collections.