Heavenly Highway Hymns–Shape Note Singing

Hevenly Highway HymnsI often include hymns in my novels. Characters sing them, refer to their favorites, and are touched by lyrics. While I can easily look songs up on-line, I prefer to use one of my treasured belongings as reference. It’s a 1956 copy of Heavenly Highway Hymns from Laurel Fork United Methodist Church.

By the time I was a kid in the 70s, we’d replaced the worn, softcover hymnals with foil stamped hardback copies. But, of course, no one threw away the old ones. So, probably 15 years ago, I asked for one of the 1956 copies (turns out to be the first printing). And now I treasure it. And refer to it often when working on a manuscript.

The problem is, once I dip into those fragile pages, I am typically lost. On the way to “Rock of Ages”–#225–I stumble across #241. And I have to sing it (aloud if no one’s around). Who can resist a chorus like, “Lord, build me a cabin in the corner of glory land . . . In the shade of the tree of life that it may ever stand; Where I can hear the angels sing and shake Jesus’ hand; Yes, build me a cabin in the corner of glory land.”

I can hear Smutt and Anna, Uncle Willis and Aunt Dorothy, Aunt Bess, Mom & Dad, Glenn and Mary, Freddie and Mary and all the others singing a capella because no one could play the piano that almost always sat silent at the front of the church. Freddie hit the bass notes.

And what’s even better, is that my book is a shape note hymnal. It’s an old-style of singing where each note (do, re, mi, etc.) is assigned a specific shape (diamond, square, triangle, etc.). It was a way to teach folks to sing without having to teach them to read music.

Trust and ObeyWhile my impromptu hymn-singing when I’m supposed to be writing can turn into a serious distraction, I think it’s also really helpful. Because I write about Appalachia–where shape note (or sacred harp) singing still hangs on. And those side trips back to my childhood in a one-room church where I first learned to call God by name–well, that’s why I write. It’s good to be reminded. And maybe to sing a few verses of #99, “When we walk with the Lord, In the light of His word, What a glory He sheds on our way!”

Published by Sarah Loudin Thomas

Author, wife, child of God.

6 thoughts on “Heavenly Highway Hymns–Shape Note Singing

  1. I love those old songs! We used to have a Summer Solstice party every year, and hire a Bluegrass band to play on our back porch! And I sang shape notes hymns once upon a time in the early days of Fairview Christian Fellowship. Great memories!

  2. Ah, the old shaped notes. What a wonderful time in the annals of gospel music that was! The old southern quartets (like The Speer Family, The Stamps Quartet, The Blackwood Family, and The Lefevre Trio) that used to tour, the all-night sings, the Sunday night song services in churches. Wow, what a blast of memory! The famous Stamps Baxter School of Music taught how to sing the gospel music using shaped notes. (The school still exists and is now owned by Ben Speer.)

    There is one song that always explodes into my mind anytime the old gospel music is mentioned in my presence . . . An Old Convention Song. One early phrase in the lyrics is actually a tribute to shaped notes. Here, listen for yourself to the Cathedral Quartet version of this neat song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcJZXCUzZFE

  3. Do you remember the Elmer’s (with 5 daughters) singing? It was wonderful to hear them do “Just A Little Talk With Jesus.”
    Or the time I requested “He’s The Lilly Of The Valley” and no one else knew it and Larry and I found ourselves doing a rather below par duet!
    I miss that group of Christian people.

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