Signature Sound

Signature Sound: Shape-note singing’s deep mountain history resounds at a Canton celebration
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“We start with singing the shapes, so everybody learns,” says June Smathers-Jolley in anticipation of the annual Old Folks’ Day celebration at Canton’s Morning Star United Methodist Church. Part homecoming and part potluck, the September 9 event will feature communal shape-note singing, reflecting centuries of tradition in sound.

“With regular music, all the musical notes are round,” says old-time musician Laura Boosinger, “but with shape-note singing, the notes are different shapes. You learn the tones associated with the shape, and you learn to sing.” She learned the technique from the late Quay Smathers (Smathers-Jolley’s father), a legendary advocate of shape-note singing in the South who led the Old Folks Day sing-alongs for decades. In 1981, Smathers received the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award for his work in preserving this Appalachian art form in churches, schools, and colleges.

Smathers-Jolley says that everyone is welcome and can participate—just bring a covered dish and your voice. “Our type of shape-note singing in our region is called Christian Harmony and is based on a seven-note system,” she explains. “We sing a little lower and a little slower, with a similar ornamentation and embellishment you hear in old Appalachian ballads.”

At the church, singers perform in the choir loft, organized as a square, with each side representing tenor, alto, melody, and bass. “The music comes at you from all sides,” says Boosinger. “It’s incredibly powerful.”

128th annual Old Folks Day

September 9, Sunday service at 11 a.m., then potluck followed by singing at 1:30 p.m.
Morning Star United Methodist Church
2535 Dutch Cove Road, Canton

Photographs courtesy of (Old Folks’ Day) Hannah Brown