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Shape Note Singing Workshop with Tim Eriksen | May 23

Tim Eriksen Shapenote

Tim Eriksen

Singer, multi-instrumentalist, and ethnomusicologist Tim Eriksen has led shape-note singing schools in locations across the U.S. and around the world, and “no one has done more to help revive Sacred Harp singing among a younger generation” (Paste Magazine). He contributed extensively to Anthony Minghella’s shape-note-infused 2004 Oscar-winning film Cold Mountain.

Eriksen will lead a singing school in Cary hosted by Triangle Area Shape Note Singers and sponsored by Pinecone and the Town of Cary. Space in this participatory workshop is limited, and donations from participants are welcome. The workshop starts at 1:30 on Sunday, May 23 in Cary’s Page-Walker Arts & History Center.

The singing school was an important institution in early America, offering participants a chance to socialize over a day or a week of instruction in a cappella four-part singing. The spread of singing schools through the South was aided by the use of shaped notes, as seen in The Sacred Harp and other shape note tunebooks.

Eriksen is “widely regarded as the best ballad singer of his generation” (BBC Radio). His music combines hair-raising vocals with savvy instrumental arrangements, transforming American tradition with a “northern roots” sound that embraces old New England murder ballads, shape-note gospel, and haunted originals alongside Southern Appalachian and Irish songs.

Eriksen’s wide-ranging musical interests extend to hardcore punk, Bosnian pop and beyond. He collaborated with Afro-Cuban world-jazz phenomenon Omar Sosa on the 2010 Grammy-nominated album Across the Divide. The former front man of Cordelia’s Dad, Northampton Harmony, and Zabe i Babe, Eriksen is the only musician to have shared the stage with both Kurt Cobain and Doc Watson (not to mention Jack White and Ralph Stanley). His new CD Soul of the January Hills (Appleseed), hardcore Americana at its most essential, has just been released.

Sacred Harp singing is the largest surviving branch of traditional American shape note singing. Singers in this tradition sing without accompaniment and sit arranged by vocal part in a “hollow square,” facing one another across the square and taking turns at leading from the middle of the square. The songs are sung loudly, with spirit and enthusiasm, and rich four-part harmonies fill the room. The leader of each song sets the tempo with a simple vertical arm movement, and singers sitting in the square often beat time with the leader.

Songs are sung from a tune book called The Sacred Harp, first published in 1844 and continuously updated since then. It includes more than 500 a cappella hymns, odes, and anthems.

While the origins of this music can be traced back to Renaissance England, the singing tradition reached a peak of development in early New England, as itinerant singing masters set words to hymns, ballads, and folk tunes, and taught their songs in singing schools. However, it was in the American South that shape note singing found an enduring home. Today, the South is home to singing conventions, including some that date back more than 100 years.

Sacred Harp singing is a community musical and social event that emphasizes participation rather than performance. The workshop is open to anyone who wants to participate: no experience or musical background is necessary; but space is limited!

The Shape Note Singers of the Triangle Area meet on the fourth Sunday of the month in Cary from 2-4 p.m.; they also meet in Durham on the second Sunday of the month from 2-4 p.m.

This workshop and the monthly sings are free of charge, though donations are welcomed. Pre-registration is not required. For more information, visit or

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1 Response

  1. This was an extraordinary event. I’m so glad to have heard about it — Wow!

    I got the sense that a lot of folks there didn’t realize under whose tutelage they were singing — Tim Eriksen is nothing if not modest, in an almost Western North Carolina Scottish Presbyterian way.

    Best wishes to all the sacred harp singers in the Triangle — and I commend Eriksen’s new CD: Soul of the January Hills to interested listeners (it’s not shape note singing, but his starkly beautiful naked singing of 14 ballads sung in traditional style — what was termed above as “hardcore Americana.”

    Still high,

    TMS from Asheville