Shape-Notes and Psalms

Have you heard of Shape Note Hymn Singing? I hadn’t until recently.

It is a traditional form of protestant hymn-singing, experiencing a small resurgence in parts of the country. Variously called “Fasola”, or “Sacred Harp”, it is beautiful, striking, sometimes boisterous and even raucous, and weirdly haunting. If you are not familiar with it, check out this clip. Going Home Mountain Shape Note singing – YouTube

The style (and many of the hymns) arose out of poor, rural, musically illiterate Appalachian communities, and are joyous celebrations of release from hard lives. They often follow the line of what were once called Negro spirituals (and are now properly African-American spirituals). Compare “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home” or “Deep river, my home is over Jordan”, with “I’m glad that I am born to die, from grief and woe my soul shall fly, and I don’t care to stay here long!”  They all speak from hard lives of misery, poverty and oppression, and they look forward to rest and relief in heaven.  Even putting aside the extremity of suffering that slavery added to poverty, the common themes are striking.  Life is hard but heaven is near; and so we turn to God.

This theme is also reflected in the Psalms, the ancient hymnal of the Jews.  Many psalms are prayers to God for relief from external attack by enemies, as in Psalm 70: “Make haste, O God, to deliver me; make haste to help me, O Lord.” The voice of misery that opens Psalm 22 is so strong, asking “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, that Jesus himself cries it out in his agony on the cross.

But what about those who do not suffer from external oppression?  In our modern lives of prosperity, security and comfort, what about those of us who suffer only from the burden of our own sins?  One of the most moving of the psalms for me has always been Psalm 130, (the De Profundis): :”Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.…If thou should mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?”

Many psalms embody the trust we can and must place in God as we navigate the uncertainty of life. Psalm 46: (“God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the sea.”)

All the psalms include elements of praise, some of them as their primary thought, like Psalm 8 (“O Lord our God, how excellent is thy name in all the earth”). Others incorporate thanksgiving and praise, such as Psalm 66 (“Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands.”)

And my favorites are the ones that praise the Lord for the beauty and wonders of the world He has made. Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows forth his handiwork.”  This one is particularly apropos for those of us who find the beauty of nature to be a roadmap to its divine origin. (See my various postings of NASA photos of the galaxies and nebulas.)

What are we to conclude from all these variation, all these different subject matters and tones of voice?  Simply this: there are many paths to God. They vary only according to our needs.  

But ultimately all paths lead to God, if followed with open eyes and heart. (And, for me at least, my ears.)



Farewell, vain world! I’m going home!
My savior smiles and bids me come,
And I don’t care to stay here long!
Sweet angels beckon me away,
To sing God’s praise in endless day,
And I don’t care to stay here long!

I’m glad that I am born to die,
From grief and woe my soul shall fly,
And I don’t care to stay here long!
Bright angels shall convey me home,
Away to New Jerusalem,
And I don’t care to stay here long!

For more on Shape-Note Singing, see Sacred Harp Singing – YouTube

For more AFRICAN AMERICAN SPIRITUALS, see African American Spirituals Lyrics

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