The Missouri Harmony, 2005 Edition
Of all frontier shape-note tune books, The Missouri Harmony was the most popular among the settlers who pushed the frontier up the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The 1820 compilation contained 185 old favorites used in singing schools and Protestant churches. Included were ancient psalms like "Old Hundred," congregational hymns like "All Praise the Power of Jesus' Name," vernacular New England choral works by eighteenth-century tunesmiths like William Billings, and a number of folk hymns out of the Anglo-Celtic oral tradition. Many of the songs were already old by 1820, and the music was deeply rooted in American culture.
In time, composer Virgil Thompson would find in the old shape-note hymns "the musical basis of almost everything we make, of Negro spirituals, of cowboy songs, of popular ballads, of blues, of hymns, of doggerel ditties, of all our operas and symphonies." Certainly their vernacular idiom was absorbed into the marrow of musical culture. Abraham Lincoln and his sweetheart, Ann Rutledge, are said to have sung from The Missouri Harmony at her father's tavern in New Salem, Illinois. Despite its importance, the book has been unavailable to contemporary choral and church music communities, including the thriving shape-note tradition of folk singers and Protestant worshipers.
The book was printed from 1820 until 1856 when it languished. By 1970, fewer than 90 copies were known to exist in libraries. In 1993, a partnership between Wings of Song (the St. Louis Shape Note Singers' incorporated organization) and Dr. Shirley Bean, music professor at UM-Kansas City produced a softbound facsimile of the 1846 edition of The Missouri Harmony. As exciting as it was to have access to the music, the book was soon deemed impossible to use for singing. The soft cover makes it difficult to hold open, and the small type and numerous typos leave much to be desired when sight singing. The new edition addresses those needs.
Special software for typesetting music in shaped notation made it possible to re-set the compositions and create a singer's volume. Wings of Song has joined with the Missouri Historical Society to produce a top-quality hardbound revised edition of The Missouri Harmony. The first new edition of this book since 1856 is once again available for use in singing schools, church services and folk music academies. The hardbound edition contains 350 pages, including new and old music. A narrative introduction by Karen Isbell and Pete Ellertsen, with photos and illustrations, places the shape-note musical tradition in its historical context. An essay by Judy Hauff discusses the characteristics of the music and the traditional approach to singing it. A third essay, by award winning author Ann Leckie, traces the formation and history of the St. Louis Shape Note singers. Notes from the music committee, written by Dave Ressler, are included, as is an index of hymn titles first lines.
Current recordings of tunes from The Missouri Harmony, 2005 edition are available here.
The book can be ordered from the Missouri Historical Society website for $29.95 plus shipping. The book is also available at a substantially discounted price at our regular St. Louis shape note singings on the 1st and 3rd Monday of each month.
The Missouri Historical Society Press, a member of the American Association of University Presses, is the publisher.