The shape-note method for teaching singing, once popular in West Virginia churches, first appeared in The Easy Instructor: A New Method of Teaching Sacred Harmony, published in Philadelphia in 1801. Sometimes called ‘‘fasola’’ singing, this system labels musical pitches using four syllables rather than letter names, assigns the syllables to the major scale (Fa-Sol-La-Fa-Sol-La-Mi-Fa), and notates the syllables with four different shapes: right triangle for Fa, circle for Sol, square for La, and diamond for Mi. Other shape-note books followed the 1801 hymnal, including the 1846 Christian Minstrel that introduced a second system using seven shapes, one for each degree of the diatonic scale.
Itinerant singing masters moved from community to community throughout the South, conducting singing schools and selling shape-note songbooks, particularly among Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Churches of Christ. Shape-note singing spread into West Virginia and continued throughout the 20th century, primarily in small, rural churches. William Este Fortney, one of many singing masters, conducted singing schools across the state for more than 40 years, while Ruth Boggs perpetuated the tradition among African-Americans as director of the New Era District Number Two Shape-Note Choir in Beckley.
This Article was written by H. G. Young III
Last Revised on October 29, 2010
Jackson, George Pullen. White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands: The Story of the Fasola Folk. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933, Reprint, Dover, 1965.
Cabbell, Edward. Where Could I Go but to the Lord? Shape-note Singing Among Blacks in Southern West Virginia. Goldenseal, (Winter 1981).
Welch, Jack & Alice F. Welch. Shapenote Singing in Appalachia. Goldenseal, (Apr.-Sept. 1978).