Singers Glen has a long history of gospel music that transcends beyond the Valley

Story by Raven-Taylor Beaty

Photos by Alexandra Mitchell

Singers Glen welcomes travelers with a sign that proclaims itself as the “Birthplace of Sacred Music in the South.”

It is the publication site of the United States’ oldest continually published hymnal, Harmonia Sacra. It was originally named “Genuine Church Music” and was published in 1832. Today, several church congregations throughout the Shenandoah Valley use the “Harmonia Sacra”. Resident historian Dale MacAllister, of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society, is familiar with the history of sacred music in the Valley and has written about the sacred music traditions of Rockingham County. According to MacAllister, Joseph Funk and his “Harmonia Sacra”  influenced the singing school movement in the South. Funk and other German Anabaptists first settled in Singers Glen about 1809. His first song book, “Choral-Music,” was printed in Harrisonburg in 1816. “It was a small book, all in German,” MacAllister says.

“Choral-Music” contained shape notes. Each shape represented the four tones of fa, sol, la and mi. Fa was represented by a right triangle; sol, a circle or oval; la, a rectangle; and mi, a diamond. “Shape note music books were used up into the early 20th century,” MacAllister says. Funk used shape notes to educate those who did not have formal music training. Funk started a singing school in Singers Glen and taught young men of “high moral character.” “By that time, he realized the German language was on the outs,” MacAllister says. Therefore, Funk wrote Genuine Church Music entirely in English. Funk compiled “Harmonia Sacra” from several different sources. Most, according to MacAllister, came from Lutheran, German Reformists and Mennonites. “Harmonia Sacra” eventually used seven shape notes to represent the tones of do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and si.

More than 80,000 copies of the hymnal have been printed since 1942. The Rev. Jim Radford of Donovan Memorial United Methodist Church is familiar with the history behind “Harmonia Sacra” and has his own copy. “A lot of people here in the area still bring their tattered copies of “Harmonia Sacra” to the sings,” Radford says. There are 10 annual “Harmonia Sacra” singings at various churches in the Valley, typically on the first Sunday of the month. Sam Showalter is responsible for organizing most of these singings. The most popular singing takes place on New Year’s Day at Weavers Mennonite Church.

“We usually have around 300 people or so. They come from many different states to come and sing together,” Showalter says. Another well-known singing takes place at Old Hamburg Church, near Luray, Va. “That’s an all-day singing where you start singing at 10 a.m. and then have lunch out under the trees on the picnic tables, and then sing again until 3 p.m.,” Showalter says. The turnout is about 200 people, which is more than the little log church was built to handle. “Physically it’s not that comfortable, but the music is great,” he says.

The other events around the Valley have anywhere between 30 to 100 people in attendance. The people of Weavers Mennonite Church are credited with starting modern singings more than a century ago. Showalter and his wife, Jan, consider the singings to be of a family tradition, dating back to their childhoods. Both their grandparents and parents were singers. Jan’s father, Daniel Suter, taught singing schools with lessons centered  around shape notes. When it comes to Showalter and his wife coordinating the majority of these singings, Showalter says it “just kinda fell into our laps.”

Shape-note music in the Valley is sung differently than in other parts of the country or the world. In the Valley, the shape notes are sung in a church congregation fashion where the tones blend together. The tones do, re and mi are usually not sung.

Elsewhere, Sacred harp singers are arranged in a square with each of the four parts in their designated section, surrounding the leader in the middle. They tend to sing the do, re, mi tones in a more boisterous and vigorous manner. Shape note music has influenced other methods of transcribing music. “They have what they now call the Nashville number system,” Radford says. The Nashville charts use numbers, instead of shapes, to represent the different notes. Neal Matthews, a famous vocalist,  came up with the idea by substituting numbers for shape notes. Regardless of its reach, shape note music will continue to have its roots deep in the Valley.

“I think we have something that’s very unique and very beautiful,” Showalter says.