Early America: Shaker and Sacred Harp Singing

For my second paper, I’m focusing on early American folksong. I began by researching Shaker music, which I enjoyed listening to and which surprised me with its similarities to Sufi music. Ultimately, though, I am not sure if there is enough literature on Shaker music to allow me to make a well-researched argument. My back-up option is the Sacred Harp (shape-note) tradition, which I have also begun to research.

Up until the last two days, my only exposure to the Shaker tradition was “Simple Gifts,” a Shaker song referenced in Copland’s Appalachian Spring. As I began my research, almost every facet of the Shaker lifestyle and religious musical tradition came as a surprise to me. Only one small Shaker community remains today, so my research focused on Shakers in the 1800s. Shakers lived in celibate communities in which all children were adopted (and given the choice to leave at age 21). They believed in the equality of men and women and opposed slavery. In terms of music, they composed hundreds of unison songs, hymns, and anthems that all members of the community sang. Shaker composers notated their work with letter names and marks indicating melodic direction (up or down).

The most distinctive part of the Shaker tradition is the way believers performed music. The word Shaker comes from the name “Shaking Quaker.” In fact, Shakers worshipped with music and ecstatic dance; in many cases, specific motions went along with specific songs.1 This troubled a lot of other Protestant communities, who believed dance had no place in religious practices. The use of dance to reach a state of ecstasy reminded me of the Sufi dances we read about in Shiloah’s “Music and Religion in Islam.” Just as non-Sufi Muslims condemned Sufi dancing, non-Shaker Protestants condemned Shaker dancing.

Although I’m learning a lot about Shaker music from the books available in the library, I haven’t been able to find many scholarly opinions on it. In one sense, the Shaker tradition is very well-documented because its songs were written down.2 On the other hand, I have only found three books and a handful of articles about it.

After spending a long time trying to justify how I could keep researching the Shaker tradition, I decided to look at the Sacred Harp tradition instead. I haven’t gotten very far on this research, but so far I am particularly interested in the ways Sacred Harp singing was made accessible to people not trained in music (for example, singers sometimes used a solfege system to make singing more participatory).3

At this point in my research, I don’t feel like I have enough information to be able to clearly articulate a thesis. I have a general idea of the traditions I’ve read about, but I think I’ll need to do a lot more reading before I’m able to narrow in on a topic.

1 Daniel W. Patterson, The Shaker Spiritual, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 28.

2 Patterson, 35.

3 Buell E. Cobb, Jr., The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978), 59.

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