Singing Schools such as the one pictured here at McKinney Cove Baptist Church were once common in the Appalachian South. Churches often could not afford or did not approve of musical instruments as part of worship, so the congregation learned to sing a cappella. The church might purchase new song books, and a “Singing Master” would work with the congregation to learn the hymns. A Singing Master might be a member of the congregation, but some traveled from church to church. The Singing School might also attract attendees from neighboring churches – courting young people as well as folks who loved to sing!
Sometimes the singers were seated in a hollow square formation, with alto, tenor, treble, and bass singers facing inward, and they sang in four-part harmony in this “FaSoLa” style. Some singers might learn their hymns by the Shape-Note method; they would determine the key of the song, learn the tune by singing the component notes, and only then add the words of the song. The singers didn’t have to read music or have a piano or organ to accompany them.
The photo shows participants in this Singing School with the songbook they have learned, but the title can’t be made out. One popular song book was The Sacred Harp, published continuously since 1844. The songs in it were intended to be sung without accompaniment, as the worshiper’s voice was the “sacred harp,” an instrument one is given at birth.