News Releases

The shape of things: lecture highlights centuries-old American music tradition

April 04, 2008
As another school year draws to a close at Lander University, so does the university's 2007-2008 Distinguished Speaker Series, sponsored by the College of Arts and Humanities.
This year's series has taken attendees on a journey through the works of Zora Neale Hurston, provided a window into the inspiration behind the works of a local artist, outlined a shift in the course of band music, examined the complexities of Cold War sports and diplomacy and pulled back the veil on atrocities committed by the leader of a crippled African nation.
In the final lecture of the series, Lander assistant professor of music Dr. Robert Kelley will provide a glimpse into an American musical tradition that has been around for centuries.
His lecture titled "South Carolina's Lost Tradition: Shape-note Music," will be held Thursday, April 10, at 6:30 p.m. in the Lander Cultural Center's Barksdale Recital Hall, Room 250.
Kelley's lecture will also provide performance examples of shape-note music, with the aid of Lander students and area shape-note singers.  

When Kelley came to Lander nearly three years ago he was familiar with shape-note music, but thought it to be a lost tradition. When one of his students mentioned that there was an annual event at Furman University that involved a daylong singing of shape-note music, Kelley attended and was amazed to find the tradition was very much alive.
According to Kelley, shape-note music comes from a tradition of singing schools that was born out of Colonial America.
"Churches during this time didn't have very good music and the singing was not very good," said Kelley. "A lot of churches didn't have instruments, but many musicians knew of music education traditions in England. They used that model to develop a singing school tradition in America and it flourished."
Instead of a series of round notes, shape-note music is written using symbols such as triangles, circles and squares to denote syllables like fa, sol and la.
"This method takes away the need to read the note then calculate, based on the key, what syllable to sing," Kelley explained. "It gives you the syllable to sing, removing a step and allowing people to quickly learn the scale and sing melodies based on the scale."
Kelley's lecture will focus on the circumstances that once led to the disappearance of a shape-note tradition in South Carolina. The lecture will also highlight the waxing and waning of the shape-note tradition and how it went from a thriving part of American music in the 19th century to nearly disappearing in the early part of the 20th century and then to its current global surge in popularity. According to Kelley, there are now shape-note groups in Canada and parts of Europe.    
The Distinguished Speaker Series is free and open to the public. For more information, please contact the College of Arts and Humanities at 864-388-8323.