Shape-Note Singing in the Shenandoah Valley.

An Address delivered to the Singers Glen Music and Heritage Festival, August 16, 1997, on the sesquicentennial of music printing at Singers Glen, Virginia.

[ Joseph Funk (1778-1862) was one of the most prominent musicians and singing teachers in the Shenandoah Valley. Residing at Mountain Valley, near Harrisonburg, he published two music books, Allgemein nützliche Choral-music in 1815 and Genuine Church Music in 1832. In 1847, wishing to print his own music books, Funk and his sons set up a printing press in the loom-house beside his home, and printed the fourth edition of Genuine Church Music in Mountain Valley, which subsequently was renamed Singers Glen. Here Solomon and Timothy Funk carried on the work of music printing after Father Funk’s death in 1862. Other family members and their associates moved the business to Dayton, Virginia, in 1878. ]

I first read of Joseph Funk and Singers Glen thirty years ago in a book by George Pullen Jackson. Many times, while driving through this splendid valley on the Interstate highway, I have noticed signs leading to towns and villages that bear names used as titles in the songbooks of Joseph Funk and Ananias Davisson. Today it is a real delight to be at last in this quiet village which all lovers of sacred music can in some sense call home. It is a delight moreover to be invited to speak to you on the subject of early shape-note singing in this valley, and on the music that was composed, sung, and printed in this area by Funk and many others before 1861. In the course of doing so, I take pleasure in sharing with you two or three recent discoveries of published and manuscript music that have broadened our view of this area’s rich history.

These discoveries confirm the observation of Harry Eskew, in his pioneering study “Shape-Note Hymnody in the Shenandoah Valley” (1966), that in music, as in other cultural aspects, the Shenandoah Valley was both in and out of the mainstream. While relatively isolated from the Tidewater, from Richmond, and even from Charlottesville right over the Ridge, it was intimately connected, by geographical and cultural ties, to Pennsylvania: to Chambersburg, Harrisburg and even Philadelphia. Despite this, the Valley produced a body of music that was both distinctive and influential.

One of the startling facts about music in this area was the predominance of shape-notes, that ingenious system for facilitating music learning by adding information to standard notation, without taking anything away. Shape-notes (originally just four of them, fa, sol, la, and mi) were devised by a Philadelphia shopkeeper named John Connelly as early as 1790; he sold the idea to a pair of musicians named William Little and William Smith, who published The Easy Instructor in 1801, the first shape-note music book, containing an anthology of popular New England psalm-tunes and anthems by William Billings, Daniel Read, and their contemporaries.

Meanwhile, closer at hand, the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania printer John Wyeth pioneered in publishing three distinct types of oblong tunebook for the three distinct markets he saw opening up on the western frontier, including the Valley of Virginia. For German-speaking pioneers, he published Leichter Unterricht in der Vokal Musik (1810), by the Harrisburg jeweler Joseph Doll, containing traditional German chorales mixed in with New England favorites by Billings and Swan. For the mainstream English-speaking protestants, especially Presbyterians, Wyeth issued Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music (also 1810), an almost totally New England-based anthology modeled closely on The Easy Instructor. Finally, for Methodists and other sectarians, especially those who attended camp-meetings, he offered Wyeth’s Repository, Part Second (1813), an innovative collection that linked camp-meeting spiritual poetry with folk melodies and other secular tunes.

These three types of songbook that John Wyeth was selling to Virginia and Kentucky-bound emigrants were the same three kinds of music books that were first printed in this valley, as soon as music types became available. Joseph Funk’s first book, Allgemein nützliche Choral-Music (Harrisonburg, 1816) might have been as successful as similar collections in Pennsylvania, but it came at a time when Germans in the Valley, even Mennonites, were rapidly adopting the English language in their church and business dealings, a development in which Father Funk would himself play a major role.

Ananias Davisson’s first tunebook, Kentucky Harmony (also printed in 1816) was intended for singing schools, and to serve the needs of mainstream and moderate evangelicals. The song texts are almost entirely by Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and other British evangelical poets, while the music, consisting in a large part of fuging-tunes, was modeled on that of Wyeth’s Repository and The Easy Instructor, the only difference being the addition of a sizable number of folk melodies that must already have been popular in the Valley. These were mostly claimed by Davisson and his associates Robert Boyd, Reubin Monday, and J.C. Lowry, or credited to Lucius Chapin, a Massachusetts-born singing-master who had been teaching in the Valley since the 1780s!

The third type of book, intended for camp-meetings and revivals, found its answer in Davisson’s Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony (1820), created, as he put it, “so that his Methodist friends may be furnished with a suitable and proper arrangement of such pieces as may seem best to animate a zealous Christian in his acts of Devotion.” In this book, the poetry drew on the growing repertory of spiritual songs by backwoods preachers such as John Adam Granade and Caleb Jarvis Taylor, songs not confined to the meters and subjects of traditional psalmody and hymnody. As for the music, military marches and fiddle tunes rubbed shoulders with murder ballads and love songs in a collection that was unwilling to surrender to the Devil even one good tune! When Conrad Speece of Staunton complained about the music being taught in the Valley in 1815, he singled out two styles for condemnation: fuging-tunes like Ocean, Montgomery, and Sherburne, and “ballad tunes, vamped up with accompanying parts, and applied as the vehicles of religious sentiment.” He acknowledged, however, that the “angular notes” were effective agents of musical learning, despite their uncouth appearance.

Kentucky Harmony went through five editions by 1826, and the Supplement had three editions. The music of both collections was so distinctive, popular, and successful, that it influenced the contents of other Valley songbooks right up to 1860, and also provided a model and impetus for other collections on the advancing frontier, for example Carden’s Missouri Harmony (1820), Moore’s Columbian Harmony (Tennessee, 1825), Knight’s Juvenile Harmony (Ohio, 1825), Rhinehart’s American, or Union Harmony (Pennsylvania, 1831) and Walker’s Southern Harmony (South Carolina, 1835). As late as 1849, Lazarus Jones of Mississippi published The Southern Minstrel, which borrowed heavily from Davisson’s collections. A manuscript tunebook from Pulaski County, Kentucky, likewise bears the strong imprint of Davisson’s influence.

The tunebooks of Funk and Davisson were not the only music printed in the Valley, nor were they the first. Correspondence between John Logan, a singing-master living in Lexington, and Andrew Law, a Connecticut-born teacher and compiler then living in Philadelphia, shows that Logan collected a group of tunes popular in the Valley, about half of them arranged by Lucius Chapin, and that Law had them printed in his own staffless shape notation in 1812 for Logan’s singing schools. Recently a copy of one of Law’s tunebooks was discovered, formerly the property of Joseph Funk, containing an eight-page insert of tunes exactly matching the contents described in the Logan correspondence.

Another kind of music entered the Valley early in the nineteenth century. This style was smooth and polished, with the melody sung by women instead of men, and the harmonies suited to keyboard accompaniment. This music was part of a reform movement that arose in the cities of the Eastern Seaboard, imitated European models, and scorned the fuging-tunes so admired by Davisson and his followers. Baltimore singing-master Wheeler Gillet took up residence in Winchester, and in his Virginia Sacred Minstrel (1817) lambasted Davisson for ignoring all accidental sharps and flats. The music in Gillet’s book was almost entirely English in origin, and completely excluded both the ballad tunes and the fuging-tunes so popular in the Valley.

A few singing teachers sought a middle ground between these two extremes, including a good selection of the new European tunes along with a large number of folk hymns, but still avoiding the fuging-tunes. The unlocated Songs of Zion by James P. Carrell, printed by Davisson in 1821, was probably of this type, judging from Carrell’s later book The Virginia Harmony (1831). A newly discovered tunebook called Ecclesiastical Harmony by John M. Johnston, printed in Winchester in 1827, was also of this type. Finally, when fifty-four-year-old Joseph Funk re-entered the music publishing business with his first English-language tunebook Genuine Church Music (Winchester, 1832), it too had this compromise character, in which Yankee fuging-tunes like LENOX, with its successive entries of the voice-parts, was rewritten in block chords to avoid the rambunctious enthusiasm of the original. Although other successful Valley tunebooks—John W. Steffy’s Valley Harmonist (1836) and George Hendrickson’s Union Harmony (1848) would try to recapture the zeal and enthusiasm of Davisson’s music, times had changed, and so had the taste of Valley residents; and so, Joseph Funk’s book, renamed Harmonia Sacra in 1851, outlasted them all.

It is interesting to compare the careers of these two men, almost exact contemporaries, Davisson and Funk, whose graves I visited today—the former near the battlefield at Cross Keys, the latter on a hillside in the village where we are gathered today. Davisson was typical of early American singing-masters—he taught and published music as a young man, and used the profits and experience to get a start in another business or trade. Joseph Funk, on the other hand, did not hit his stride as a music publisher until a relatively advanced age, but, through his own personality, and his careful training of his numerous and talented sons and grandsons, he was able to ensure the success of his work even after his death. The activities of the Funk sons, and of the Ruebush-Kieffer firm of Dayton, well into the twentieth century, are evidence of that success; so is the existence of the musical opera Singers Glen by Alice Parker. But his most valuable legacy is the continued vitality of the Harmonia Sacra, now in a beautiful and accurate edition with Funk’s introductory rudiments restored, and especially the continued vitality of a living tradition of singers who have kept the music alive and ringing for over a century and a half. It is this tradition that we celebrate here today, and I am honored to share a part in it. Thank you very much!

David Warren Steel

Last modified 27 August 2013
Copyright © 1997 D.W. Steel. All rights reserved.
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