What is a singing school?
After shaped-note singing began to catch on, musical entrepreneurs recognized a good thing when they saw it! Collections of hymns, anthems, and other sacred music were transcribed into shaped-note systems and books were sold hot off the presses.
Trained, traveling singing masters visited communities to teach the new system and sell the latest songbooks at singing schools. The schools spread from New England to the deep South. They were especially popular in the Blue Ridge Mountains and became not only musical, but social affairs as well.
Young and old gathered in school houses, churches, and homes to learn the rudiments of music from visiting singing masters who usually conducted 10 evenings of instruction before moving on to the next community. Often they were paid in farm produce, dry goods, and other commodities.
Churches greatly benefited from singing schools, and all day singings with dinner on the grounds became common. There are still several all day singings in the Blue Ridge Mountains that have run continuously from those early days.
One of the oldest is held annually at Morning Star United Methodist Church in Canton, NC. This particular singing celebrated its 125th anniversary in September 2015. Another historic singing is held bi-annually in the Etowah community of Henderson County, NC. Both of these singings use The Christian Harmony by William Walker.
Quay Smathers learned to sing in such schools in Western North Carolina and eventually became the leader of the historic shaped-note singings at Morning Star and co-leader of the singings at Etowah until his death in 1997 at age 84.
Desiring to honor his ancestors and keep the singing alive, Quay led singing schools at colleges, folk festivals, churches, and under the oak trees in his own backyard. The Quay Smathers Memorial Singing School honors his contribution to saving this early American musical tradition by raising up new singers to carry on the unique Blue Ridge style of shaped-note singing.
Photo by Rob Amberg