This melody hasn't stopped in over a week

April 18, 2006 at 11:44 PM · I was wondering how other string players would react to this old melody called SAMANTHRA. I was fortunate to sight sing it with a group over a week ago, and it has haunted me unremittingly ever since. Just doesn't stop running through my head. You can read music with shaped note heads as in this example if you just pretend all the note heads are the usual oval, and read like normal. Only trick is, F-sharps are likely, to make the melody Dorian, but F-natural for Aeolian is common enough these days. Your choice. Also, the melody I'm talking about is the one in the middle, a.k.a. "lead" or "tenor" or "main air" (although the higher "treble" and lower "bass" voices-- yes, that's an old-fashioned bass clef-- enjoy arguing which is really the main melody!). At the thicker bar line in the middle of the first system, repeat to the beginning (the stacks of four spots are old-fashioned repeat signs). The second section repeat is optional-- usually on the last verse only. With only the first section repeat, you should find a crystallized little miniature of sonata-allegro form! We sang the quarter note at about 75 or 80 bpm (which is "slow" for this tradition). If this sticks in your brain and drives other music out, don't say I didn't warn you! Here it is--


I've found several published examples from the 1800's spread across five decades and as many states, but they all lack credits for composer or source of the music. Any clues or impressions people may have are welcome. I have some vague contextual hints about the music origins, but I'd rather wait a bit on sharing those in order not to bias impressions or guesses others might have. Enjoy!

Replies (17)

April 18, 2006 at 02:54 AM · check out his official website:

April 19, 2006 at 02:33 AM · The Brahms opening to this website sounds very labored...I would suggest changing this

April 19, 2006 at 02:45 AM · something is very strange. it seems that my thread got crossed with this one.

I started one on Julian Rachlin.

April 19, 2006 at 02:59 AM · it's a very lovely tune. I'd say that it's probably pre-baroque, in terms of notation. Very close to the baroque times though, as it does use treble and bass clef, plus the 5 line stave, so it's definately after Guido'd Grand Stave was invented.

I think you'll find that the note-heads actually have a relationship to each other. The tonic and dominant (A and E) are shown in squares, the third and the sixth in a triangle, the leading note and it's dominant (the fourth) are shown as oval noteheads, and the second is a diamond. I believe these were to help with identification of notes and what relationship they had with other notes

April 19, 2006 at 02:50 AM · Strange....I thought it was just me. JR is cool. Does he still have the short spikey hair?


April 19, 2006 at 04:01 AM · Gennady, yes, threads are definitely crossed. LOL- I love surrealism! Ben- shrewd, yes, the shapes represent solfege syllables, specifically the morphing Guidonian hand of the descending major. This kind of music theory was all the rage in England a few centuries back and became the standard in the American colonies. This particular set of four shapes was patented in Philly around 1800 and in publishing became almost exactly coextensive with a uniquely American singing school tradition which migrated South and and West where it has so far survived the industrial revolution and globalisation and continues today. Though the texts are uniformly sacred, the tunes were usually in aural tradition before being written, and they were often fiddle tunes, old English or Gaelic ballad melodies, often enough newly composed things, rousing African-influenced camp-meeting call and responses, or just about anything that existed in the new colonies and nation-- hence the occasional mystery like SAMANTHRA.

I'd hoped that this surface shape appearance wouldn't be too distracting, but for the curious, THE clearinghouse on the American shape note tradition is .

Meanwhile, that melody still runs through my head. The first publication I know was in 1825 in Ananias Davisson's "Supplemnent to the Kentucky Harmony", 3rd edition, 1825, Harrisonburg, Virginia. I copied out of William Walker's 1854 3rd edition of "Southern Harmony" for the first post. That exhausts my contextual clues. I still love surrealism. I had crunchy spiky hair before Nigel Kennedy! What about that tune!?

April 19, 2006 at 04:37 AM · "Ananias Davisson's "Supplemnent to the Kentucky Harmony", 1825."

Is "Kentucky Harmony" another book? I skimmed the site, but can you explain the purpose of the shaped notes and what "Sacred Harp" is exactly? I think my grandfather used to teach this, and there were a few left-over shaped notes hymnals around my house when I was growing up but I don't know anything about it.

April 19, 2006 at 04:27 AM · Wow. What a strange thread. It was created "April 18, 2006 at 4:44 PM (MST)", yet Gennady "Posted on April 17, 2006 at 7:54 PM (MST)".

We've achieved time travel! Well, at least Gennady has. And there are two "Submit message" boxes where I can type in. Is everyone like that?

April 19, 2006 at 04:34 AM · Hello, is this the thread for Julian?

April 19, 2006 at 04:38 AM · This is definitely strange. Either Gabriel or Gennady has defied the laws of

I'm going to go write in the other message box now and see where it goes.

April 19, 2006 at 04:36 AM · It ended up preceding my first post. Interesting, indeed.

April 19, 2006 at 05:01 AM · I have emailed Laurie about this, and yes it is most strange indeed. It feels like a Felini movie.

April 19, 2006 at 05:11 AM · Crossed threads. It must be my fault. It's honestly the first time I've ever used html. I know, I'm a dinosaur. I love surrealism. And SAMANTHRA. And spiky hair.

Jim, readers-- the shapes stand for solfege syllables (in older system, as mentioned above, so only four shapes makes a complete mode!), so traditional singers I know who sight sing for hours claim that they can't read music (and some CAN'T name the notes from the staff!)-- they really read the shapes, which move depending what key you're in. Yes, those are all different book titles. The most famous persisting title is "The Sacred Harp", first published 1844, still in print with thousands of followers. No instruments involved-- strictly a capella.

It's interesting-- Bartok and Kodaly and Vaughan-Williams and Dvorak and the names never end... [don't get me going about Kastalsky in Russia!] melody-hunting and musical nationalism were so big all over Europe roughly a century ago. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the "folk" themselves, or anyway, people who hadn't gone to music school, had already another century before written down their own melodies and published literally hundreds of titles in millions of copies-- shape note music was genuinely America's first mass media popular culture. And yet, although a continuous in-print living tradition, for a few titles at least, still continues today, it's but a remnant. Our own treasury of original indigenous melody is mostly forgotten, or at least usually unrecognized.

Violins can play the tunes from this tradition-- by ignoring the shapes, or by re-writing in modern classical musical orthography. These tunes have proven interesting and fun sometimes for some of my students. I'm touched by the interest here in the shapes, and I love the shape-note tradition and community, but in this web community, I really was hoping to get some string-player-type impressions of the "shapeless" and beautifully-sculpted melody itself. Other interests I recommend again to the "fasola" web community, or happily to me personally through a " comment" where I would be delighted, for example, to hear more about your ancestor, Jim, and try to understand just which sub-branch of it all he was involved with. [Or here, if people are fine with it-- I'm just trying to be considerate of hyper-focussed violinists...]

Try that melody!

April 19, 2006 at 06:15 AM · Here's an authentic performance of it. click here

The performers:

April 20, 2006 at 01:59 AM · Since I'm one of the two people singing on that recording of Samanthra, I can state categorically that it's not particularly authentic.

If you want to hear REAL shape note singing, go to -- where you can select from a whole slew of truly authentic singings from a variety of shape note traditions.

Of course, the best way to hear this music in its most authentic form, go to a Singing! There's a whole list of them on the website, both smaller monthly singings and big all-day singings. New singers (or listeners) are always welcomed with open arms, and the food is always great!


April 20, 2006 at 02:45 AM · Haaaa. Are you real? Very pleasant voice and nice ornaments. How did you discover this so quickly?

April 20, 2006 at 08:04 PM · Hey-- once Fellini starts writing surreal spiky-haired posts on, anything can happen! Laurie asked me to resubmit, and I did, slightly altered, yet the time travel entertainment continues here. ROFL!

In my personal melody-hunter zeal, I've been captivated by SAMANTHRA. It is, I think, one of the great living mysteries in shape notes right now. So, trying all angles of pursuit, I found Annie and gave her the heads-up (Hi, Annie!-- I DO really love your recording). "Authenticity" is an arguable thing, but I do also agree with Annie that people interested in the shape note singing and its gathered sound should find other recordings and events. I like the link she provides. I also think the best thing is to get yourself to a singing. The living fasola Sacred Harp singers and their massed resources are the way to go for shape note interest.

Meanwhile, I'm really curious how other string players will feel about this tune SAMANTHRA.... :-)

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