Reading list

A 19th C. singing school

I couldn’t be at the local singing this week, so a post on some reading I’ve been doing.

Many — probably most — of today’s Sacred Harp singers, if they consider the matter at all, would assume that by the middle of the nineteenth century, the singing school tradition had died out in New England. But the singing school persisted in the rural areas of northern New England through the nineteenth century. Northern New England in the nineteenth century was a remote, rural region — even a frontier region — in the northern Appalachians, and it had more in common with the rural South than with urban New England. I do not believe they were using shape notes, but nevertheless they were conducting singing schools.

Jennifer C. Post, in her book Music in Rural New England: Family and Community Life, 1870-1940 (Durham, N.H.: University of New Hampshire Press, 2004), reports on a mid-nineteenth century Vermonter who attended singing schools:

Charles Cobb (1835-1903) of Woodstock, Vermont, provided information on his attendance at “singing school” in his mid-nineteenth century diary. He notes that the earliest singing school he went to was in 1845, and in 1850 he was reluctant to go during a period when his voice was changing. He went often with his mother during this period (though he noted that his mother attended on her own as well). In 1854 he wrote about a friend who attended the singing school with him, providing rare details of the event that include references to issue pertaining to economic value, sociability, aesthetic concerns, lyrical content, and performance practice:

“He has bought a singing book & paid 58 cents and is impatient to get his money’s worth. He starched up & went to singing school Jan. 1 — I went also — they bawled some psalm tunes, out of tune, in such a manner that the words could barely be heard only by those who had them before their eyes, and to close off, thing singing master (Oscar Perkins), Harvey Vaughan and Smith the schoolmaster sung some funny songs accompanying on Vaughan’s melodeon. After such a monotonous and universal howling it was a treat to hear some real singing.

I note with interest that some of this sounds quite familiar: after my first singing school I went and bought a singing book and yes I did want to get my money’s worth out of that book; when I go to a convention I “starch up,” that is, put on good clothes; and I’ve been to one or two singings where I’ve heard psalm tunes bawled out of tune so that you couldn’t understand the words (and I’ve been guilty of some bawling myself).

Post goes on to note that in some rural regions in northern New England, the first singing schools were not established until the mid-nineteenth century; in Colebrook, New Hampshire, the first singing school was not established until 1870. This is not so different from the course of events in the South, where singing schools were established through the mid-nineteenth century.

Today, we Sacred Harp singers tend to think of conventions and all-day singings and shaped notes as the defining features of our tradition. But we still call the group that gathers at a convention a “class,” and shape notes are merely a pedagogical tool to help us learn sight singing. I’d argue that the conventions and all-day singings were built on the foundation of the singing school. If we think of ourselves as part of a broader singing school tradition, that might mean we have some interesting musical cousins outside Sacred Harp singing.