In Memory of John Bayer, Jr.

In Memory of John Bayer, Jr.

by Kelly Macklin

John Bayer, Jr. passed away on December 8, 2016 just over a year after the death of his wife, Loraine. They are survived by their children, Regina, Hans, and Jubal, and four grandchildren.

I first met John Bayer in September 1990 at the United Convention in Chicago (held for the first time out of the South!) My husband, John, and I were new singers and this was one of our first conventions. John Bayer was also a fairly new shape note singer, but I never realized that until much later, as he was a strong, vibrant and enthusiastic singer who seemed as though he had sung this music all his life. He was a bear of a man, with a beautiful, clear tenor who could be heard even in a crowd. He often slapped his book in time to encourage the class to sing out or pick up the tempo!

John singing at home, surrounded by Loraine, Hans, Jubal, and members of their singing community. Photo by Sheila Patterson.

The family were Anabaptist attending Old German Baptist Brethren Church. John was a man of strong faith and conviction. He held a belief in the frailty of people and their propensity to sin. I believe he wrestled with his dark side mightily. He expresses this in his compositions. He had strong opinions which he was not averse to share, but he also realized his sharp tongue could wound, for which he would humbly apologize. One might think we would have little in common, but in fact we did. We had long and enriching conversations about religion, philosophy, history, and morality, as well as music.

He composed numerous songs, in the shape note genre; eight (plus one arrangement) appear in The Shenandoah Harmony (2013) (the most of any modern composer) and twelve in The Missouri Harmony (2005). Judy Hauff frequently collaborated with John. She co-authored four of the nine tunes in The Shenandoah Harmony; she says in the 1990’s he flooded her with songs to harmonize or critique. He loved minor music and weighty themes. His compositions are unique and compelling, and highly singable. He found words which do not appear in other shape note books that I have used, and which are potent, arresting and well married to the music. He had an impressive knowledge of tunes, a hefty collection of songbooks and and was an invaluable source of information and advice to us when we were compiling of The Shenandoah Harmony

The songs display an amazing diversity. “Heck” is a paean to the farmer’s plight; any gardener will sympathize. “Okefenokee” is a lilting song with a powerful theme of good and evil. The very popular “Bowen” has a rousing chorus about family which always inspires a class. “Hymn of the Dunkers” is a sober, but vibrant call to prayer and praise. “Marcia” has lovely harmonies and extols the city of Jerusalem. “Harper’s Lament or Runie’s Farewell” is particularly poignant; it was written for a beloved, and warmly welcoming, elderly Southern singer who passed away. “Madness” is almost shocking in its theme, yet relevant today, though the verse was written by Isaac Watts in 1707. “Night of the Grave” is a haunting setting of James Beattie’s poem “The Hermit” (1780), which contrasts the temporary gloom of night or winter with the permanency of death. John also transcribed the powerful two-part “Symyadda” from the Sand Mountain oral tradition.

John and his family travelled to singings whenever they could get away from the duties and demands of their melon farm in Ohio. He managed to come to one of our early Northern Shenandoah Valley all day singings, a James River Convention in Richmond VA and the Keystone in Lancaster PA in 2013, in addition to many travels south and to Chicago and the Midwest. However, we often would find a way to visit John and his family at home in Ohio. My favorite memories are sitting with them all at the table and singing. All three of his children were enthusiastic and talented singers and to hear them together with familial blending was unbelievably satisfying. When The Shenandoah Harmony came out, we sang through it with them as they voiced their approval, critiqued or demanded more verses!

We will miss him mightily. He was a wonderful friend. I will think of him whenever we sing his songs, especially this; “Take your companion by the hand, and all your children in a band, and give them up at Jesus’ call to pardon, bless, and save them all.”

Kelly Macklin

Here is a playlist of John’s songs.

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Story telling event at NSV double all day

Kevin Griffin Moreno

May 25 at 12:54pm

Since some folks have been asking, here is info about the inaugural “Shape Note Stories” event that will take place at the social on June 4 in the evening.

We are inviting folks to share short narratives that illuminate their experience with the shape note singing tradition. Four featured storytellers will kick things off with 5-7-minute anecdotes. After that, we’ll open up the floor to 3-5-min. stories from whoever has a tale to share. The storytelling will end promptly after 90 mins., but folks should of course feel free to continue trading tales around the fire.

Don’t be shy about telling a story! If you’re a shape note singer, then you have at least one story to offer, regardless of how new or experienced you are. Here are some tips to get you started.

– Each story should focus on a particular shape note-related memory or narrative.

– Sample prompts: talk about a memorable person you have met through this tradition; describe a singing-related road trip; talk about how a particular song has affected your life.

– Your story can be humorous, touching, inspiring, or some combination thereof.

– It’s not a testimonial, treatise, disquisition, manifesto, or memorial lesson. Keep it personal and intimate, even if you’re talking about someone else.

– Have fun with it!

If you have any questions, feel free to reply to this post or DM me. I look forward to hearing your stories! kmoreno at gmail dot com

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The Pros and Cons of Imitating the South

We recently came across this article in a copy of Shape Notes, a newsletter edited by Bob Hall and Ella Wilcox for several years in the Washington, D. C. area. Our good friend, Kat Kinkade wrote this in 1995. It still seems relevant today! Kat was one of the founders of Twin Oaks, the longest surviving income sharing, non-religious commune in the U. S., and author of several books about it. As you can tell from the article she was an enthusiastic and articulate singer.


by Kat Kinkade, Louisa VA, first published in 1995 in Shape Notes, a newsletter by Bob Hall and Ella Wilcox

I attended the New York State convention in October and listened to Judy Hauff give a talk that dealt with, among other things, the semi-syncopated style that many southern singers use particularly when singing a series of eighth notes. If you’ve been South, you probably recognize what I mean. Take the passage from “New Topia,” (page 212, tenor line on the words “Your joys on earth will soon be gone”) that I would normally have read “Fa mi la la la mi fa la sol la la.” Go to Alabama and you’ll hear this read as “Fa m’la la la m’fa l’sol l’la.” When I first heard this, I thought it was just a relaxed pronunciation, but after a while, I found that my foot was tapping and I was internally bouncing in a way that never had happened to me farther north. I loved the feeling, and I concentrated on learning to do it, because it was so much fun.

Later I discussed this with my home group leader, John delRe, and he sprung it on the unsuspecting group by leading the basses into a syncopated entrance to the chorus of “Evening Shade.” (Fa s’la s’fa m’la – try it.) The song immediately fell apart. The tenors refused to imitate the entrance, and everybody was rattled. Some weren’t even sure they were on the right page.

To settle my mind on the matter, I put the question to a wonderful and knowledgeable Southern singer, and he vehemently expressed the opinion that this syncopated style is not correct, but comes from inadequate musical education. The notes are not syncopated on the page, and should not, in his opinion, be syncopated by the singers. So I went South again and listened some more. What I observed is that some Southerners do it and some don’t. It probably depends on what family one belongs to.

After that, I decided I would make a practice of doing what the local singers do, wherever I happen to be singing, but I am always pleased if the locals are syncopating the faster songs, because I love the rhythm and sparkle.

Judy keeps spreading the gospel of syncopated eighth notes, and I’m joining her in the campaign — not because that’s the way it’s done in the South, but because I like doing it, and I think other people will enjoy it once they get the hang of it.

In my opinion, this is by far the best reason to imitate the Southerners. You can talk to me about being respectful of their history and tradition, and I’ll agree, up to a point. You can take a folklorist’s position and strive for an “authentic” style, and that’s your privilege, if you’re into folk arts. But shape-note singing is not a folk art to me. It’s not an arcane pastime that is interesting because it comes from a foreign culture. It is music that thrills me to my toes; it appeals to my highest and best emotions. I would rather sing Sacred Harp than do anything else in the world. In the profoundest sense, and with all due respect, this music is mine.

Because it is mine, I reserve the right to copy or not to copy what the Southern singers do. I am still mulling over the question of whether to drift into a Southern accent when I sing Sacred Harp. Should I abandon my habit of distinct enunciation? Should I let go of final d’s and t’s? Is it a mortal sin to let one’s natural vibrato ring out on the treble? I haven’t made up my mind.

There is one musical argument in favor of imitating the Southern pronunciation. In all choral singing, chords, literally tune better if everybody pronounces the vowels the same way. So when in Alabama I find myself drifting toward the Southern pronunciation of words like “pure”, “heaven”, “bound”, and so forth. I feel a little silly when I experiment with this, but, of course, nobody notices. Why should they?

Singing in my home territory is another matter. If this music is ours — and one can argue that it became ours as soon as the ’91 Denson revision was made available — then it makes some sense to be natural with it, to sing it as it appears to us, as we feel it. Most of us are not used to swinging with our hymns. There’s nothing innately unmusical about our northern accents; we are accustomed to a perfectly respectable minor scale that doesn’t raise the sixth tone.  Contact with other regions’ customs and style is necessarily limited to those who can find the time and money to travel a lot. So I don’t think it is a good idea to make a big deal about doing everything the South does, causing feelings of inferiority in some people and of rebellion in others. Within reasonable limits, I think each group will seek and find what feels and sounds good, and maybe some of it will some day be as good as Alabama singing, in its own distinct way.

But I am theorizing. For myself, there is nothing closer to ecstasy than an Alabama singing convention with a handful of full-voiced, passion-driven Northerners among the crowd. Count me in.

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Did Lucius Chapin write the Amazing Grace tune?

By Rachel Wells Hall

The melody sung to John Newton’s 1779 hymn “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound” is, without a doubt, America’s best-loved hymn tune [1]. Unlike Lowell Mason’s “Nearer, my God, to thee,” the “Amazing grace” tune is of unknown origin. It first appeared in print in 1829 without any composer attribution, and there were thought to be no earlier surviving instances of the tune. However, an 1828 manuscript by Lucius Chapin (1760-1842), who was famous in his day as a hymn tune writer, raises the possibility that Lucius was its composer.

Lucius and his brother Amzi (1768-1835) were among the first and most influential composers to harmonize American folk hymns, using principles they had absorbed from New England and English church music, and perhaps from the oral tradition as well. They also composed hymns in a similar style. The brothers came from a large, musical Massachusetts family. Their mother was an exceptional singer, though she did not read music, and two of their brothers also became singing masters. Lucius and Amzi moved south and west as young men and taught singing schools throughout their lives. In 1828, Lucius was living in central Kentucky and Amzi in western Pennsylvania [2].

The 1828 manuscript was mentioned in passing in James Scholten’s 1972 dissertation on Lucius and Amzi Chapin. Scholten provided few details and seemed unaware of its significance. In page 87, Scholten wrote of Lucius’ son Cephas (1804-1828),

On July 25, 1828, [Cephas] died from typhus in Oxford, Ohio en route home to visit his parents. There are three tender expressions of paternal love and grief on the back of Cephas’ last letter penned there by Lucius, the tunes AMAZING GRACE and BRAINARD and a brief poem [2].

The familiar melody had a number of titles in its early publications: ST. MARY’S, GALLAHER, HARMONY GROVE (Shenandoah Harmony, p. 300), NEW BRITAIN (Sacred Harp, p. 45), and more. The one title it did not have was AMAZING GRACE, though that title was used for at least two other melodies. The tune wasn’t paired with Newton’s text until 1835. I was curious to see the manuscript, because neither John Newton’s hymn “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound” nor any of the tunes known for that text are associated with the Chapin family by modern scholars. However, the great nineteenth-century scholar W.E. Chute (1832-1900) attributed the melody to the Chapins, though his evidence is unknown.

I contacted Christine Engels of the Cincinnati Museum Center Library and Archives and she sent me a copy of the back of Cephas’ letter, reproduced here with permission. You can click on the image to see more detail. The date August 13, 1828 is visible in the lower right corner.

Music dated Aug 13, 1828 on the back of Cephas Chapin’s letter to Lucius Chapin

Since Lucius doesn’t name the tune on the left, I’m going to call it NEW BRITAIN, which is its most common name (hymn tune titles are traditionally written in capital letters). Here’s a closeup. Despite teaching shape notes for decades, Lucius never adopted them in his personal manuscripts.

The tune NEW BRITAIN written in Lucius’ hand

It is possible that NEW BRITAIN was added to the manuscript after 1828, or copied from a source that does not survive. However, the version here doesn’t exactly match any tune found, either published or in manuscript, in Nikos Pappas’ exhaustive index of over 60,000 early American hymn tunes (1700-1870) [3]. It is closest to the tune ST. MARY’S found in Shaw and Spilman’s Columbian Harmony (1829) [4]. Like Lucius, Shaw and Spilman lived in central Kentucky. More about that later.

Should we attribute the NEW BRITAIN tune to Lucius? Probably not. It is possible he composed it, but this isn’t like finding a Beethoven sonata written in Mozart’s handwriting, or even like finding NEW BRITAIN in Lowell Mason’s handwriting. Even if Lucius were the first to notate the tune, the concept of “authorship” in this repertoire is difficult. Composers felt free to write arrangements of popular sacred or secular melodies in oral tradition and publish them, either as unattributed tunes or with their own names attached. They also made their own versions of tunes in books or manuscripts, appropriated and rearranged European classical music, and composed music from scratch in a folk idiom [5].

Authorship as regards the Chapins is particularly difficult to pin down. The three most popular American folk hymns, TWENTY-FOURTH, NINETY-THIRD, and ROCKBRIDGE, are all ascribed to Amzi or Lucius (see The Sacred Harp, pages 47 and 31, and The Shenandoah Harmony, page 1, respectively) [3]. The brothers never published books, and the manuscripts that survive don’t clarify the situation. Lucius and Amzi most probably composed harmony parts, but we don’t know to what extent they “wrote” the tunes.

The other tune on Cephas’ letter, BRAINARD, gives some tantalizing clues to Lucius’ musical process. It is a folk hymn most often called INDIAN’S FAREWELL or PARTING FRIENDS (see page 271 of The Shenandoah Harmony). In this case, there are several published versions prior to 1828, though none match Lucius’ tune exactly [3]. What’s interesting here is the fact that Lucius appears to be making a transcription. He writes the tune twice, using two different rhythms and time signatures. He mistakenly writes “6/8” as the time signature for both versions, and the first version has an incomplete measure. In all the published sources, the first note is on the downbeat, not a pickup, as it is here. After viewing the letter in person, I believe that Lucius was also transcribing NEW BRITAIN, as there are scrape marks where he corrected mistakes.

The tune BRAINARD or BRAINERD and the text “When shall we thus meet again”

Why did Lucius write these particular tunes on the letter, presumably thinking of his son? INDIAN’S FAREWELL was usually coupled with the text “When shall we all meet again” by Anna Jane Vardill (1807). (Although Vardill wrote the poem in the persona of “Casmerian” (Kashmiri) Indian, it was spuriously associated with both Native Americans and missionaries, and perhaps Lucius’ title refers to David Brainerd, a well known missionary to the Indians.) Lucius writes a different text, however—one more tender, and one associated with the death of a child:

When shall we thus meet again (repeated)
When the dreary winter’s past,
When is hushed the northern blast,
When new verdure clothes the plain,
Then may we thus meet again.

This entire poem appears in Daniel Huntington’s 1838 memoir of his daughter Mary, who died in 1820 at the age of six. On page 43, Huntington writes that he composed the poem for her Sunday school class in 1819. It was published in the newspaper Boston Recorder in that year and somehow it made its way into Lucius’ hands. (If the beginnings of Vardill and Huntington’s texts seem familiar, it’s because they were inspired by the opening lines of Macbeth.)

What text or texts might Lucius have associated with NEW BRITAIN? Texts and tunes usually had an independent existence in this period. The two texts used in Columbian Harmony (1829) are Charles Wesley’s “Come, let us join our friends above” and Isaac Watts’ “Arise my soul, my joyful pow’rs.” Of those two, “Come, let us join” is closest thematically to “When shall we thus meet again.” It is one that Sacred Harp singers today associate with memorials, though we sing a different tune, ARNOLD, to these words:

Come, let us join our friends above,
That have obtain’d the prize;
And on the eagle’s wings of love,
To joy celestial rise.

If Lucius didn’t compose NEW BRITAIN, then who did? The basic structure of the tune is ancient. NEW BRITAIN is a folk hymn—a sacred melody that existed, in some form, in oral tradition prior to being notated. It belongs to a recognized “tune family,” or group of tunes, sacred or secular, that share enough structure and melodic phrases that they seem to be descended from a common root. Other related tunes include Amzi Chapin’s TWENTY-FOURTH (written in the 1790s) and, more distantly, the African-American spiritual “Swing low, sweet chariot” (published in 1873, but definitely older). The folk hymn CONSOLATION (attributed to the Chapins when first published in 1812) has the same contour, but is in the minor mode. Though clearly different melodies, all four tunes share the same four-phrase structure, with first phrase ending on the fifth below the tonic, the second phrase ascending to the fifth above, the third phrase descending from there down an octave, and the final phrase ascending to the third before returning to the tonic. All four of these tunes remain in print in multiple modern hymnals.

However, just because a tune is a folk hymn doesn’t mean that there wasn’t an originator for a particular variant of the tune family. There were at least ten slightly different versions of NEW BRITAIN written down from 1828 to 1840 in Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina [3]. Three of these were from central Kentucky. This argues for oral transmission, but the fact that each version differs from the others only in the amount of ornamentation notated suggests that one person, perhaps an itinerant preacher or singing master, was the “vector” that spread the tune through this area in the late 1820s to 1830s.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that Lucius’ version was closest to ST. MARY’S in Shaw and Spilman’s 1829 Columbian Harmony. There may have been a closer connection between Charles Spilman, Benjamin Shaw, and Cephas Chapin. Charles and Cephas were born within a year of each other and both were Presbyterians. In 1828, Charles and Benjamin were at Centre College in Danville, about 90 miles from the Chapin family.  Though Cephas was in Alabama prior to his death, he had previously been teaching singing school in Kentucky and stated in a letter that he had entered Centre College, although he didn’t graduate. Cephas’ letters say he participated in a revival there in 1826. Did Charles and Benjamin learn the tune from Cephas? Or vice versa? Or was this tune commonly known at Centre College?

This possible connection raises the question of whether Lucius (or Cephas) wrote the arrangement of ST. MARY’S in Columbian Harmony. There are some aspects of the harmony—the four-part setting, and the variety of chords—that are found in the Chapin arrangements. However, the static treble (top line) and bass, the narrow, high range of the treble in relation to the melody (tenor), the use of parallel thirds, and the dominant seventh chord before the final note all argue against Lucius as arranger. As for Cephas, we have no record that he composed or arranged music.

What, if anything, does this manuscript add to the story of “Amazing Grace”? It’s fascinating that there is a direct connection between America’s best-loved hymn tune and our “first family” of sacred folk song. I could speculate endlessly on where Lucius learned the melody, or whether he composed this variant of the tune family. However, the one thing certain is that he wrote the tune on the back of the last letter he ever received from his son. The tune must have had emotional significance for him, and perhaps provided some consolation. In that, he would not be alone.


Another interesting story, though tangential, is the Chapin family’s connection to the antislavery movement. If you’ve read the story of John Newton (the author of the words to “Amazing Grace”) or seen the Broadway play, you’ll know that he was the captain of a slave ship who later rejected his past and advocated against slavery. The Chapin family lived in central Kentucky and some of their neighbors owned slaves, though there weren’t large plantations in the area. However, the diary of Cephas’ sister Harriet survives, and she was profoundly antislavery, though as a woman she didn’t have power to make decisions about her household. She thanks God that her father is “an Emancipator.” I don’t know if that means that he had slaves and set them free or if he didn’t believe in slavery and never owned slaves (I think the latter). Harriet considered it her duty to educate the two young African-Americans who worked for the family, an act that would have been illegal in many states. Harriet died in 1827, just a year before Cephas—a fact that must have made Cephas’ death even more difficult for their parents.

In general, the early revivals in Kentucky were far more democratic than were churches later in the 19th century. Both white women and African-Americans—even slaves—were called on to testify and even preach, and everyone participated in group singing, which was one of the hallmarks of these revivals. So the fact that this particular tune, whoever wrote it, is often associated with black spirituals and related to “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” is not surprising, as it was first popular in a mixed environment.


I found a poem about Cephas’ death and obituary online.


I would like to thank Christine Engels of the Cincinnati Museum Center Library and Archives for her assistance in locating the Chapin letter, the Museum Center for permission to post images, and Nikos Pappas of the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa for his willingness to share his invaluable research in documenting American sacred music.


[1] Steve Turner, Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song (New York: Harper Collins, 2002).

[2] James Scholten, “The Chapins; a study of men and sacred music west of the Alleghenies, 1795-1842” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1972).

[3] Nikos Pappas, Southern and Western American Sacred Music and Influential Sources (1700-1870). Database, 2015.

[4] Benjamin Shaw and Charles H. Spilman, Columbian Harmony, or, Pilgrim’s Musical Companion (Cincinnati: Lodge, L’Hommedieu & Hammond, 1829).

[5] Nikos Pappas, “Patterns in the Sacred Music Culture of the American South and West (1700-1820)” (PhD diss., University of Kentucky, 2013).

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Lehigh Valley All-Day 2014 Recordings



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Download the (in)Complete Recordings

We’ve had a number of requests for a way to download all the recordings from our (in)complete recordings playlists.  Here goes…

Songs viii-49:[gview file=””]

Songs 50-99:[gview file=””]

Songs 100-149:[gview file=””]

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Consolation New

The song Consolation New appears on page 143 of The Shenandoah Harmony.  Although it was first published in Harrisburg, Pa. in 1813, the tune is probably far older.  Ananias Davisson rearranged the tune in 1822 and included it in A Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony, ed.2.  We added an alto part in 2012.

Here’s a video from a singing in Hadley, Massachusetts.  Our friend Becky Wright is leading the group, which is arranged in a “hollow square” formation.

Becky chose a fairly slow tempo for the song.  Here’s a faster recording with a small group, from December 2013 in Easton, Pa.


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The (in)Complete Recordings

Here are some recordings to help you learn songs from The Shenandoah Harmony. To download a song, right-click or control-click on its title. If you’d rather just listen to the highlights, try our SoundCloud feed. To search for multiple recordings of a single song, type the song’s title into the search bar on the right.

The MINUTES for the playlist are also available.



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Holyoke Range All-Day 2014 Recordings

We had a wonderful time singing in Massachusetts on Saturday, May 3.  Thanks to everyone involved, and, in particular, Cheri Hardy for chairing the singing and the Western Massachusetts community for your warm hospitality! Minutes for the singing are on our Minutes page.

Some of these tracks are rough, but we’re including them for study purposes. The first and last sessions are the strongest.



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Questioning the Unanswered Cadence

There’s sometimes an audible gasp from the class after singing REDEEMING GRACE (page 218t), THE HUMBLE PENITENT (399), or Allison Blake Steel’s arrangement of HICKS’ FAREWELL (403). Why the surprise? A lifetime of listening and performing music conditions us to expect that a song will end on its tonic chord—the chord that functions as a “home” for that song’s major or minor key.  In 218t, 399, and 403, the bass ends on the expected tonic (1-fa in major or 1-la in minor), but a note sung by some other part creates a chord other than the home chord.  We are left with an unanswered expectation of return.

I don’t have polished recordings of these songs, but here’s somewhere to start. Scores for the songs are later in the post.
PLAY ShH 218t Redeeming Grace
PLAY ShH 399 The Humble Penitent
PLAY ShH 403 Hicks’ Farewell

A little music theory: the tonic triad is created from the first, third, and fifth degrees of the scale—typically, the notes sounded by the keyer.  In major, the tonic triad is 1-fa, 3-la, and 5-sol, while in minor the tonic triad is 1-la, 3-fa, and 5-la.  When the bass sings the first degree of the scale, a tonic triad is in root position.  Many, many shape note songs don’t end with a tonic triad, however.  Most minor songs end with just the first and fifth degrees of the scale.  And not every major song ends with a complete major triad.  So I’ll refer to the “home chord” as the chord with the bass on 1 and the other voices on 1, 3, or 5, though not all three notes need be represented.  The home chord is the most stable harmony that we expect to hear.

With the exception of 218t, 399, and 403, all the songs in The Shenandoah Harmony end on their home chord, as do all of the songs in The Sacred Harp.  (A few songs shift into another key entirely, or modulate, as in ADMIRATION on page 160, but these also end in the home chord of their new key.)  In contrast, REDEEMING GRACE and THE HUMBLE PENITENT, both “major,” end on 1-fa and 6-la, with the bass on 1, while HICKS’ FAREWELL (“minor”) ends on 1-la and 4-sol, with the bass choosing between those two.  The final chord is neither the tonic chord nor any chord in root position.  Since a sequence of harmonies that ends a musical phrase is called a cadence, I’ve dubbed this ending an unanswered cadence.  Of course, every shape-note song repeats at least once, because we sing both shapes and words, with more repeats if more verses are sung.  So the unanswered cadence is “answered” by a return to the beginning of the piece.


Does the unanswered cadence even properly exist?  Early shape note books were plagued by typographical errors.  A very common mistake is to have a shape incorrectly placed on the staff.  Judging by subsequent printings and purely musical clues, the shape is more likely to be correct than its placement. It’s possible that the 6-la in REDEEMING GRACE and other songs was originally intended to be a 3-la, which would be a member of the home chord.  It’s also possible that a 5-sol is intended, rather than a 6-la. As I mention below, there’s at least one shape-note song where I think the final chord contains an error, rather than an intentional unanswered cadence.  In addition, unanswered cadences were sometimes edited out of later arrangements.  However, as a lover of the “unreformed” shape-note style, I don’t find the actions of late nineteenth century reformers particularly significant.

The best argument for the existence of unanswered cadence is the fact that REDEEMING GRACE retains its final unanswered chord in some books throughout its 200-year publication history, even while other notes in the song were changed.  However, as far as I know, it’s the only such song that has an unbroken singing tradition to the present day (through The Christian Harmony and The Southern Harmony).  I’ll start with versions of REDEEMING GRACE, then look at other songs that have unanswered cadences and speculate on how the unanswered cadence contributes to our understanding of shape-note music.


REDEEMING GRACE appears in The Southern Harmony, The Christian HarmonyHarmonia Sacra, The Hesperian Harp, and elsewhere.  The earliest printed version comes from Wyeth’s Repository, Part Second (1813), page 79. The chooser notes in the tenor on the first phrase of the melody are unique to Wyeth’s.

Here’s the arrangement in our book, which matches The Southern Harmony, page 56 (1835), except that we have added the alto from The Hesperian Harp.

Here’s The Hesperian Harp, page 262 (1848), which is the most mysterious arrangement of all.

The things to notice in all of these arrangements are the cadences—the endings of the first two phrases and the endings of the piece.  The Hesperian Harp presents the class with an array of choices for the chord that ends the A part (this is an AABA song with a D.C. repeat, so this chord ends three of the four phrases in the tune, including the final phrase).  If at least one bass singer chooses the 6-la for the final note, the piece ends on a complete minor triad, and, following the “rule” that the key is the final note in the bass, the song is in E minor—that is, 6-la in major becomes 1-la in minor.  However, it’s unusual to end with the tenor on the third degree of the minor scale—I can’t think of another song that ends this way.  If all the basses choose 1-fa and some of the trebles or tenors choose 6-la, we have an unanswered cadence.  If all  the basses and tenors choose 1-fa and all  the trebles choose 3-la, however, the song ends on the home chord of G major.  Note that The Hesperian Harp is the only source to give the class a choice on the final chord.

What are we to make of the choosing notes in these three versions?  The rudiments of The Southern Harmony (1835) and The Hesperian Harp (1848) instruct us that if there is more than one singer, both notes may be sung, and this practice is followed by modern day singers.  I’m not sure that we should extrapolate backwards in time to Wyeth’s (1813), which does not mention choosing notes.  The tenor is supposed to be “the” melody. Is the melody, in fact, a matter of choice? It’s likely that the song was in oral tradition before 1813. Could there have been some disagreement among singers about the notes in the melody?  The two choices may even represent first and second endings for the repeated phrase at the beginning of the song; the class could sing the 6-la on the first pass and the 1-fa on the second, or vice versa.


As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, the late 1800s saw a shift towards a more conventional harmonic and rhythmic style (that is, the style of European-influenced common practice music) and the use of seven-shape or round-note notation. In addition, minor sonorities, often conflated with four-shape notation, fell out of favor and triadic harmony was preferred to dyadic harmony (a dyad is a chord with only two different notes; some dyads are ambiguous in that they belong to more than one triad).  Although REDEEMING GRACE still has the unanswered cadence in Walker’s The Christian Harmony (1866), page 329, his alto lingers on the 3-la (mi in seven shapes), which completes a minor triad at the A-phrase endings (thanks to Calum Woods for pointing this out).  Others have “reformed” the song radically.  Here is Hauser’s re-arrangement of REDEEMING GRACE on page 362 of The Olive Leaf (1878).  Again, pay attention to the cadences… NOTE: the malformed shapes on F# in the second system, bass, are clearly typos. G (do in 7 shapes) is intended.
OL362_RedeemingGraceThe unanswered cadence and indeterminacy of the choosing notes are gone, as is every single minor chord in the piece.  Whereas earlier versions had numerous dyads and a few dissonant chords, the chording here is 100% triadic.  Hauser liberally uses 4-fa in the bass to substitute major IV chords for minor vi chords and ends squarely on the home chord of G major.

The Harmonia Sacra is a book that had extensive revision with the adoption of seven shapes in the late nineteenth century.  Here’s the arrangement from page 242 (image used by permission of

HS242_RedeemingGraceI feel slightly disloyal to the Shenandoah writing this, but this is my favorite arrangement of the song—thanks to Dan Hunter for pointing it out.  Although the unanswered cadence is gone, the arranger (who?) preserves many of the minor chords, and adds an exquisite vi6 chord—a triadic completion of the dyad that ends the piece in the earlier four-shape arrangements—at the end of the B part.  The use of IV chords creates a more modern sound, but the vi chords hark back to the old four-shape arrangements.  NOTE: I’m still following up on the history of Harmonia Sacra revisions and will add more when I know the date for this arrangement.


Devotion.  The other well known song that sometimes has an unanswered cadence is DEVOTION, as in page 48t of The Sacred Harp.  Here’s the first published setting, which comes from Johnson’s Tennessee Harmony (1818) and is reprinted in The Southern Harmony (1835), page 13b.  This treble line, ending on the 6-la, is one of the loveliest I know.

Here’s a recording I made of Johnson’s tenor and treble, then one with all three parts, and finally a version with a bass I wrote to emphasize the minor chords. The tenor is in the right channel and the treble is in the left, so you can experiment with hearing just one part at a time.
PLAY Devotion Tenor and Treble
PLAY Devotion all parts
PLAY Devotion bass altered

Johnson “corrected” this arrangement in his second edition (1821), but the 6-la ending in the treble persists in later sources, and also appears in a different arrangement by Davisson in A Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony, ed.2, c.1822; like Johnson, Davisson removes the unanswered cadence in the 1826 edition of SKH.

The Humble Penitent and Conformity.  This song too has a history of revision by Davisson and others.  Our Shenandoah version is mostly from the third edition of SKH, but borrows one feature from the second edition.  Here’s HUMBLE PENITENT, page 13 of SKH ed.2, c.1822.


Here’s HUMBLE PENITENT, page 14 of SKH, ed.3, 1826.  In the reverse of the normal course of things, the unanswered cadence was added by Davisson a few years later.  He also extensively re-arranged the song.  I don’t attribute this ending to error; the 6-la appears in two parts and both lines are directed towards it.  We changed one note in The Shenandoah Harmony, giving the alto a 6-la in the middle of the piece to create the  open 6-3 dyad that’s in the SKH ed.2 version.

CONFORMITY in the Harmonia Sacra has a similar melody, but different text and arrangement.  It does not have an unanswered cadence.  Here’s the version in the modern book from; the earliest setting (1832?) lacked an alto and had two bass choosers: a choosing 5-sol above the 1-fa on the first note and a choosing 1-fa below the 6-la on the third note before the end, creating a vi6 triad again!
Friendship (to every willing mind). The version of this song in A Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony has an unanswered cadence created by a 6-la in the alto.  The tune is a variant of a melody by Handel; I’ve discussed it extensively HERE.  It’s in our book on 221b with a different arrangement.  There’s another version in The Christian Harmony.  I believe that the unanswered cadence in SKH is a mistake, and Hauser seems to agree—the alto note is changed to a 5-sol in The Hesperian Harp.

Angels Songs.  This setting of a British Isles folk tune is part of James P. Carrell’s recently discovered Songs of Zion (1821).  The alto 6-la is preserved in The Hesperian Harp (see HERE).   As in Friendship, the parallel phrase ends on 5-sol for the alto.  I’m somewhat less inclined to see this as a typo, because the song frequently cadences on the vi chord already, and because Hauser doesn’t change it.

Hicks’ Farewell.  Allison Blake Steel’s arrangement of HICKS’ FAREWELL, a William Walker melody from The Southern Harmony, ends (in minor) with the bass on a choosing 1-la and the 4-sol above it, while the other voices take 1-la or 4-sol.  It’s a delicious chord—reminds me of the second phrase ending in 344t SUFFERING SAVIOR. It is also a great example of how a composer can use old techniques to create something entirely new.

ShH403_HicksFarewellThere are additional songs in the late nineteenth century seven-shape repertoire that don’t end on their home chord, but I’ll leave them out, as the musical style had changed considerably by then.


It seems appropriate to end this post, like these songs, with questions.  What does the existence, and persistence, of the unanswered cadence in REDEEMING GRACE tell us?  Why did Davisson revise his HUMBLE PENITENT arrangement to add more ambiguity rather than less?  How are we to accept that the lovely treble line of DEVOTION ends on the “wrong” note?  Of course, we can never know why any of these songs are the way they are, since we have little or no information from the composers and arrangers themselves.  However, tunebook compilers of the period felt free to change songs copied from other books, so both the survival of the unanswered cadence in some books and its”correction” in others are telling.

The most obvious hearing is a deliberate confounding of our expectations for the home chord.  In common practice music, this kind of fakeout is a type of deceptive cadence.  Perhaps this interpretation is too modern, however.  I’m not convinced that shape-note composers of this era thought in terms of chord progressions, though in their rudiments the home triad is mentioned as the most stable sonority.  I’m inclined to say that we have an ending “destabilization” rather than a chord progression.  (Just for kicks, I did some research on “unstable” endings in modern pop music.  I couldn’t find information about ending on iv6, but ending on the IV chord is popular enough in contemporary Christian music that one blogger, Greg Howlett, rails against it as a gimmick.  Springsteen’s “Lonesome Day” also ends on IV.  In fact, some iconoclastic alto could complete the ambiguous 6-1 dyad ending of REDEEMING GRACE, DEVOTION, and HUMBLE PENITENT to a IV64 triad, which has 1-fa in the bass, with the other voices taking 4-fa and 6-la.  David Temperley’s “The Cadential IV in Rock” mentions the use of IV to loop back to I, just as our unanswered cadence is followed by a return to the beginning of the music in the next verse.  If the unanswered cadence is a “gimmick” of the 1820s, however, it didn’t catch on; as far as I know, no new unanswered cadences were added between 1826 and Steel’s 2007 HICKS’ FAREWELL.)

Alternately, an unanswered cadence may be a way of pointing out a modal ambiguity in the melody itself.  Despite the firm differentiation between major and minor in the rudiments of shape-note books, the line between the two is blurred in the songs themselves, and, of course, the distinction had only became important when people started to notate music that had been in the oral tradition.  Many shape-note tunes are “modally restless” in that they share phrases with tunes that are in a different mode, and even may belong to tune families that have both “major” and “minor” members.  For example, HUMBLE PENITENT has some melodic similarity to BOURBON, which is minor; 2 RHODE ISLAND (minor) and 82 INDIAN PHILOSOPHER (major) are another such pair.  John G. McCurry commented in the rudiments of The Social Harp (1855), “There are some tunes that no man can tell whether they are major or minor keyed; e.g. refer to “Minister’s Farewell,” “Rhode Island,” “Antioch,” “Desire for Piety,” that the keys are in conflict all the way through.”  Although we don’t know whether modal ambiguity was a well known issue, McCurry, at least, had noticed it.  REDEEMING GRACE, HUMBLE PENITENT, DEVOTION, and ANGELS’ SONGS are all major songs that have prominent uses of 6-la, and the ending cadence reinforces the sense of being in major and minor at the same time. In HUMBLE PENITENT, especially, the final cadence says to me “no one knows what key we’re in.”

Another way I hear the unanswered cadence stems from my belief that shape-note music of the early 1800s is primarily melodically, rather than harmonically, driven.  Each voice part pursues its own melodic destiny.   In the rudiments of The Hesperian Harp, page xviii, Hauser encourages composers to “make each part so good a melody that it will charm even when sung by itself,” although he also stipulates that “[the fifth] should be the last note but one in every bass.” Though the voices are not meant to clash repeatedly, they don’t have to satisfy any particular harmonic expectations (Hauser notes that even the “rule” that the bass should end on 5-1 is sometimes broken).  Perhaps the unanswered cadence is nothing more than one part ending in major on 1-fa while another part ends in the relative minor on 1-la.  Or perhaps the situation is that, just as a tune that is centered on 1-fa can end on 5-sol, as does HALLELUJAH (SH 146), such a tune can end on 6-la—this is the idea of modal restlessness again—and the same goes for any individual voice part.

Spoiler alert—my next blog post will be on modally restless tunes…


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