Heavenly Highway Hymns–Shape Note Singing
I 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.
While 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!”