By Norris Chambers

          One of the early things I remember hearing was a melodic sound that sounded something like this: “Do ra me, me, me, so la do” etc. My mother was uttering it and was apparently reading from a book. I had looked at the book and I had not seen any good pictures. All I saw was page after page of lines and dots and a little printing scattered here and there. She told me it was a song book and that she was practicing singing the songs that were printed on each page. I was old enough to know what a song was. I hadn’t heard this kind of song. I couldn’t understand it and I had no idea what it meant. She told me that she would sing the words from one of the printed compositions in the book.

            The one she picked was lively and had a good beat. I liked it, but didn’t get much meaning from the words. The old songs I had heard were pretty plain in meaning. One of the early tunes was Old Dan Tucker. I could visualize him coming to town riding his goat and leading his hound. I was familiar with these animals and, although it didn’t make very good sense, I knew what it was about. I had heard the song about the Little Brown Jug and I knew what a brown jug was. But one of the lines that kept appearing in her song was “Triumphant o’er sin.” I was not familiar with the big word and I interpreted it as two words, “Try” and “umphant”

I understood “try” but was unfamiliar with “umphant”. How could I try an umphant when I didn’t even know what it was?

            When I asked about it she explained to me that the big word meant winning and that since sin was not a nice thing it was good to win the battle with it. Since I knew what a battle was I told her I would have liked to have seen that fight!

            Although I didn’t understand much of it she told me that in the song book the little dots on the lines represented different tones. She pointed out that each dot on the end of a vertical line was shaped differently. She showed me on the organ that each note in the book had a tone to match it on the keyboard, and then she played some of the songs that were in the book.

            In the early years of my life the only music we heard was that performed by an individual. There were no phonographs, radios, televisions or computers. Even the juke box had not made its appearance. There were a few mechanical contraptions that would perform for a coin. One machine actually played a fiddle and a player piano would perform for a similar amount. Music boxes that would tinkle out a simple tune were available and were often given as gifts for various occasions.

            Most music was performed by individuals and groups. The largest of theses groups was church choirs and congregations. Singing schools were organized in the community and were usually taught by some one who was familiar with music theory and was a good singer himself.

The shaped notes were taught to the students as musical tones and the purpose was to memorize the tone of the scale. The seven notes in the scale were pronounced as do, ra, me, fa, so, and la.

These notes were placed on the lines with stems and connections and were sung with the tone the note represented. The instructor kept time with him arm in such a manner that the tones followed the timing written in the music and when sung the melody was heard. Various parts were sung by different the altos, tenors, bass etc. and provided a harmonious presentation. When the melody and its parts were well known by the singers the scale was replaced by the words. New songs could be easily learned this way after the singer was familiar with the tone each shaped note.

The schools usually lasted about three weeks.

            Shaped notes were later replaced by the regular round notes used in music today where the tone is interpreted by the line the note is printed on. Some hymn books still use the shaped notes and can be played or sung as either type. My mother and father attended these schools and could easily learn new songs from a song book or sheet music.

            By the time Clifton and I were old enough to display our musical ability the singing schools had been discontinued. We were told that as phonographs and radios began to appear those who were seriously interested in learning songs found them on records or heard them over the radio. I’m sure if we had been around during the singing school period we would had found a way to have fun, even if we had to resort to harmless trickery! There’s nothing funnier than slipping a few strange song books in a stack of the student’s handouts!