A previous version of this story incorrectly identified where Dan Patterson was a professor. He taught at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Nearly 50 years ago, John Feddersen heard what he described as “stark, just visceral singing” as he crossed the National Mall in Washington, D.C., that compelled him to go see where it came from.
There, on a stage, was a group from rural Georgia performing a style of music that was as old as America, but was missing from many of the 50 states. The singers organized in groups – tenor, bass, soprano and alto – and the groups all faced the center, where members took turns standing and leading the next song. There were no instruments. It was all a cappella.
The songs were deeply religious, often about deliverance after a life of temptation and struggle, and reflected a time when people were much more God-fearing than they are today. But the singers’ delivery of the lyrics in four-part harmonies was eerily powerful, a wall of sound mightier than the sum of its parts.
Feddersen had discovered a style of folk music known as “Sacred Harp” or shape-note singing, and today he’s an unofficial leader of Triangle shape-note singers, a chapter that recently got the green light to perform again in an ideal setting: the small, simple chapel at Mordecai Historic Park just north of downtown Raleigh.
On Sunday afternoon, two dozen men and women poured into the chapel to sing a few dozen shape-note standards. They sang a solid hour before taking a five-minute break for announcements, then chugged on through the second hour. They stood for the last song, “Parting Hand,” and began entering the center after a few verses to shake hands.
The style of music originated in New England’s protestant churches at the time of America’s founding, but it survived in the rural South and became recognized as an American art form in the 1960s. An 1844 songbook called “Sacred Harp” gave the music a name and helped spread it by using shapes to help singers identify the four notes used in each song. Those notes – fa, so, la and mi – are, respectively, a triangle, circle, square and diamond.
The “Sacred Harp” is a reference to one’s vocal cords, which practitioners viewed as a gift from God and the only instrument necessary.
Shape-note singing’s revival in the Triangle began in the 1970s, when a UNC-Chapel Hill professor, Dan Patterson, started a group. Today, the Triangle chapter sings every second Sunday of the month at the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Durham and then the fourth Sunday of the month at the Mordecai chapel.
Shape-note singers from across the state join in an annual convention the first Sunday in March.
Though the lyrics are rooted in Christian faith, that’s not necessarily true of the singers. Feddersen, a timpanist for the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, and several others interviewed said the allure was the music’s intriguing power and historic significance.
Deborah Brogden, a retired state employee who lives in Raleigh, has been singing shape-note music for roughly 10 years after learning about it through contra dancing.
“The first time you hear it, you are like ‘Whoa, Nellie!’ because it’s so strong,” she said. “But I hung in there.”
She’s come to call it “a massage of the soul.”
“And so I keep coming,” she said. “I wanted some soul time.”
More information on the Triangle chapter can be found at ncshapenote.org.