Etowah Christian Harmony Singing
by Irene Moser
Now in its 103rd year of celebrating the “sacred harp” of the human voice, the Etowah community in Henderson County remains a pivotal inspiration to the singers of western North Carolina. Participating in a tradition of reading music in shaped notes, extending at least to the English Renaissance, these singers continue to sound the American arrangements gathered and noted by the Spartanburg, South Carolina singing master William Walker in the mid-1800s. Through multiple venues, varying numbers of participants, and regardless of weather, these active tradition bearers have remained enthusiastic participants across generations in a unique and continuous musical tradition.
Even as a child in the 1940s and 50s, I loved this event. My joy was not entirely due to the multiple versions of chocolate cake, all of which had to be sampled, at the covered dish “dinner on the grounds,” where the participants in the all day singing rested and enjoyed another form of community celebration. My main pleasure was from the singing itself, so unlike the subdued and sedate hymn singing I usually attended. Here even a small group of ordinary people, some without formal musical training, powerfully filled the space with striking harmonies, spirited fugues, “high-lonesome” minor tones, and volumes that might have carried across the ridges, like the vocal “hollers” of pioneer forbearers. For all the members of my family, Etowah has always been a place where one can really sing.
We were introduced to this singing by my father, Artus Moser, a frequent participant who recorded some sessions. Like several of the older singers in the group at that time, my father read music only if the notes had shapes. Assigning shapes, e.g. squares, triangles, half circles, etc., to the notes of the musical scale was intended to facilitate sight-reading by making tonal relationships easily identifiable. Earliest shaped-note systems used three or four tones: fa, sol, la, and sometimes mi. William Walker’s system uses seven shapes and appeared in his first edition of The Christian Harmony in 1866. This is the system ordinarily used at Etowah.
This system of reading music was easily portable, since it requires only a pitch and a few books or manuscripts to start the singing. The late 1700s saw the development of singing schools in the Northeast, and then the songbooks moved west with the settlers and south with the itinerant singing school masters.
The small group who met at Floyd Nicholson’s house in the community of Etowah in the first decade of the twentieth century included children of Patton Moffitt, a singing school teacher. Orr, Lance, and Allen were family names of other singers at the beginning. As the number of singers grew with visits by neighbors, distant relatives, friends, noted singers from other states like South Carolina and Georgia, and later folklorists, the group moved to larger quarters–first a small brick church; then in 1952 the Etowah Elementary School offered its hospitality. On the Saturdays before the first Sundays in May and September the celebrants continue to gather. In recent years the number has dwindled to an average of about 25 regular participants and the venues have shifted again. Last fall they met at the Cummings Memorial Methodist Church in Horseshoe, and this May they are scheduled to return to their first venue—now the home of the Etowah United Methodist Church. Wherever they meet, the commitment of fine singers, whether descended in genes or in spirit from the group’s founders, remains strong.
Family connections, as well as individual tradition bearers, have often been crucial to the continuation of folk traditions and so it is in this instance. In her article in the Spring 1974 Appalachian Journal, Mabel Moser (my mother) quoted Ross Gilstrap, resident of Greenville, S.C., who spoke at one singing of his family’s music:
“I’d like to say something here…I’m a newcomer here, myself, but this old book, Christian Harmony, is my family song book. About the turn of the century my folks lived over beyond Rosman. My grandpa, Will Aiken, and my grandma had seventeen children. No radio or TV in those days. My mother said that every day after the evening meal—not just on Sunday—…when the meal was finished and the dishes were cleared away, Grandfather would push his chair back from the table and say, ‘Now some of you children git the books.’ The books included several copies of the old Christian Harmony. They would sing until it would get so dark they couldn’t see anymore. Several of the songs…we have sung this morning. And that’s the reason I love ‘em.” (267-268)
Gilstraps were still participating in the first years of the twenty-first century. As it was a hundred years ago, Allens are leaders and officers of the group. The minutes, published online since 2003, attest to the consistency of participation.
The influence of the Etowah singings is not limited to the 2,766 residents (as noted in the 2000 census) of this small community. Those singings are an important part of a network of shaped-note singings across and beyond Western North Carolina. Individual supporters have played key roles in that widespread network: Quay Smathers, recipient of the 1991 N.C. Arts Council’s N.C. Heritage Award, was noted as a “tireless advocate” of shaped-note singing, especially at Morning Star Methodist Church in Canton and at Etowah. Secretary Jennedie Blythe, along with Jimmie Cantrell and now Scott Swanton have been devoted organizers. A number of Etowah singers participate in other singings. Scott Swanton, Dan Huger, Mary Baumeister, and Ernest Gilstrap sing in Brevard and at the Swannanoa Gathering, to name a few examples. Etowah remains an inspiration to song leaders, such as my sister Joan and her former student, Laura Boosinger, in local occasional sings and in splinter groups, and for folklorists, teachers, and in the public sector. Remarkably appropriate for a mobile society, this centuries old art form remains imminently portable—the traveler should remember to take along a hymnal, for shaped note singings are reported now in 42 states.
The online Christian Harmony NC schedule for 2010 identified 31 possible events in NC and neighboring states. That schedule includes the May Etowah community sing, led by Scott Swanton at the Etowah United Methodist Church. Thanks to the Etowah singers, we are still sounding the ancient modal tunes and lively fugues, voicing the four-part harmonies where each part is almost a tune in itself, and rendering again the poetry of title and stanza in “The Lone Pilgrim,” “Unclouded Day,” “Idumea,” “Samanthra,” “Pisgah,” “French Broad,” “Green Fields,” “Northfield,” “Sweet Rivers,” “Thorny Desert,” “Angel Band,” “Watchman” (early gospel), “Jerusalem,” “Babylon is Fallen,” “Webster,” “David’s Lamentation,” and always ending with the fare-thee-well of “Parting Hand.”
Irene Moser, a 2006 recipient of the Brown-Hudson Award, is professor emerita of English at Mountain State University in Beckley, West Virginia, where she taught literature, composition, Appalachian studies, and folklore. Since retiring she has taught folklore as an adjunct at Western Carolina University and Warren Wilson College.
Original publication citation:
Moser, Irene. “Etowah Christian Harmony Singing.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 57.2 (Fall-Winter 2010): 29-33.