Let Every Land Their Tongues Employ: Ritualized Democracy among Shape Note Singers


  • Allen Duggar College of Charleston


Sacred Harp, Shape note singing, ritual studies, democracy


Shape Note singing, a style of congregational singing, developed an informal institution of local singing groups separate from the churches for which this music was envisioned by its early pioneers. Within these groups, a number of ritual practices developed which I argue emphasized a distinctly Protestant vision of democracy. Among these practices are the traditional arrangement of chairs which faces the singers inward and marks out a square-shaped ritual space in which singers take turns leading the tunes of their choice. Additionally, the shaped note heads with which the music is notated and the practice of “singing the notes” before singing the lyrics lower the barrier of entry and thus invite singers of all skill levels to participate. These practices, though, do much more than make the tradition more accessible. The tradition creates sacred space and carves out a ritual environment in which a stylized form of American democracy is performed. There is a system of elections and parliamentary procedure that ritualizes an idealized vision of Protestant democracy untainted by the divisive influence of politics. The result of the ritualized equality is a powerful sense of fellowship and aesthetic experience for the singers. 






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