Notes of history

Waynesburg University

Roberts Chapel is home to many hymnals available for students during Tuesday services, but Eberly Library is the home to an older kind of hymnal. These hymnals contain shape notes and date back to the Civil War. The hope for the hymnals is to digitize their pages to be made available online for public viewing.

Director of Eberly Library Rea Redd is responsible for the shape note hymnals. According to Redd, the hymnals date back to around the American Civil War between the years of 1816 and 1870. However, it is unknown when the hymnals first came to Waynesburg University.

“We’re still looking for the documentation of the gifter donation,” Redd said. “The only thing we could do is go online and research the publishers of these [hymnals].”

Using this method, Redd said that they might be able to track the publisher and how many copies they produced. This would help to determine the edition of the hymnals, though Redd believes the copies are first edition.

In the fall of 2020, Dr. Ronda DePriest, director of the music program, took a sabbatical to study shape notes. 

“I’ve read out of shape note hymnals my whole life,” DePriest said. “My first hymn singing was sitting on [my grandfather’s] lap and him teaching me.”

DePriest said that shape notes were brought from England and eventually transitioned to round notes, which are now primarily used.

“With shape notes, you really don’t have to read anything other than the shapes themselves,” DePriest said. Key signatures are not needed in shape note music and musicians are able to sing harmonies quickly, DePriest added. 

“Hymns really generally only have four or five chords max in them and they’re meant to be easily accessible,” DePriest said.

DePriest and Redd will be meeting to discuss the future of the University’s shape note hymnals. Together, they will try to determine the origin of the hymnals and try to narrow down possible donors, Redd said. Redd’s goal is to digitize the hymnals so they can be viewed by a wider audience.

Redd said he hopes for a “multi-dimensional online page.” This would include notes and history on the shape note hymnals, the page numbers of the hymns, and possible vocal recordings, Redd said.

“I think it’s great for us to see our history,” DePriest said. “It’s an older tradition, but it’s alive and well.”

For those interested in learning more about shape notes, DePriest will be teaching a music special topics class titled ‘Hymnology’ in the spring of 2022. Students will study music and hymnals, including those with shape notes.