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What is ornamental singing?

Doctoral dissertations have been written on this topic, so suffice it to say the subject can only be treated in general terms here. However, this fascinating aspect of the Blue Ridge style of shaped-note singing deserves a closer look as well as energetic efforts to keep it alive and thriving.

Simply put, the musical definition of "ornament" is much like the common definition of the word - a decoration or embellishment. Ornaments are not necessary for carrying out the basic tune of a song just like a door does not have to have raised panels (decorative touches) to function as a door. But how much more special an unadorned melody can sound or a plain door can appear with a little embellishment!

In the shaped-note tradition, ornaments probably came from a variety of sources, including classical music which often makes use of them. (In this discussion, the terms "classical music" refers to the broader musical definition of "music that is classic and time- honored," and not the chronological definition of "music written between 1770-1820.") Some examples of ornaments are trills, grace notes, turns and mordents. In early classical music, composers often wrote out the actual music notes of the ornament, but later the decorations were indicated by specific symbols. Also, early music frequently left it up to the singer or instrumentalist to improvise embellishments. 

That brings us to the shaped-note tune books. Written in the 19th century, these books sometimes indicated  particular ornaments and referred to them in the "Rudiments of Music" found in the introductory section of the books, but often the book compilers expected the singers to improvise them as done in early classical music. 

But how did the singers know about ornaments that were not always written within the tune?

Oral tradition!


Folk singers of all cultures around the world have kept alive musical traditions for centuries. Many 19th century shaped-note books contain the tunes of folk songs and folk hymns from the British Isles and Early America. When the basic tunes were passed down, the embellishments came along for the ride and creative folks mixed and matched them in a variety of ways.


This was encouraged and discouraged!


In particular, New England clergy began to discourage the practice of embellishing hymns even before shaped-notes arrived on the scene; and, music educators influenced by "modern" European methods drove the custom out of the cities and into the country - eventually to new geographical locations such as the Midwest, Appalachian Mountains, and Deep South.


Among those who encouraged the practice were the tune-book compilers, especially of the shaped-note methods. By using familiar tunes that already had an oral ornament tradition attached to them, addressing ornaments in the Rudiments of Music, and training singing school masters to teach their methods, compilers ensured that ornaments would survive the efforts to squelch them. 

One might ask why the tune-book compilers cared about ornaments? There are probably many reasons, but one that cannot be overlooked is the fact that shaped-note books were extremely popular in some areas of the country and sales were brisk. The savvy compilers knew to give the people what they wanted, and the people wanted their much maligned folk-style of singing complete with ornaments befitting an English or Appalachian ballad. 

So what is the state of ornaments today? Sadly, as the older folks are passing on, so too, are many of the ornaments. However, thanks to recordings and documentary work, many of them have been collected and even studied in a doctoral dissertation which focused on the historic Christian Harmony singings in Western North Carolina led by Quay Smathers. 

Because of Quay's determination to keep the Blue Ridge style of shaped-note singing uninfluenced by outside singing styles, many who learned under him also learned these Early American ornaments. At the Quay Smathers Memorial Singing School, second-year participants are offered the opportunity to learn the ornamental style once so prevalent in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is important that this part of our tradition be cherished and nurtured to insure its survival for another century

The Rudiments of Music in the Christian Harmony, as well as other shaped-note books, contain instruction on ornaments.

The small round note is an example of a grace note ornament in "O Save" found in the Christian Harmony.

The late Richard Moss (standing) from Shooting Creek, NC and the late J.B. Parker (seated right) from Ellijay, GA were both known for their ornamental style of singing shaped-notes. QSMSS staff member Laura Boosinger (next to J.B. Parker) and School co-founder and daughter of Quay Smathers, Elizabeth Smathers-Shaw (in hat) learned this style from singing with the masters who left an important stylistic legacy.

Quay's brother Vaughn Smathers  (left) and their uncle George Smathers (right) were known for their highly ornamental style of singing. Their voices can often be picked out on recordings from the 1960's by Dr. Edith Card who did her doctoral dissertation on the performance style of Christian Harmony singing.

From a glossary of musical terms in the Christian Harmony - the term "mordente" refers to a vocal ornament. Hopefully the term above ("morendo") is not indicative of the fate of Blue Ridge style ornamental singing as done by the masters of an earlier day. There is still time to save this valuable tradition by attending the Quay Smathers Memorial Singing School!

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