The other night, Casey and I watched Lawless, a film set during Prohibition in rural Virginia. In one of the scenes, Shia LaBeouf visits a church service wherein the congregants are sitting in a square—in parts—facing one another, and singing. Based on the strong rhythm and the arrangement of people, I could tell they were using shape notes.
While this form of singing is not native to Appalachia, it is practiced most often there. The use of shapes for various note heads and an initial run through with solfege help singers learn the music quickly. Singers also mark the beat with a wave of their arms. Interestingly, the tenors, not the sopranos, often carry the melody.
There is something raw and rough about shape note singing that I love. It shows an edge of Appalachia that is mysterious and foreign. If you ever get a chance to listen, do. Here’s a video of a shape note singing in Henagar, Alabama.