My grandfather, William Walker Rich, served during WWI. He was shot in the ankle by machine gun fire and captured by German soldiers. This was right at the end of the war (1919) and soon he rejoined his American forces and returned to his TN home of Waynesboro. There he recuperated. His shattered ankle bones had been pinned together by the German doctors using a melted silver coin. He always limped and had pain in his ankle the rest of his life.
Sometime during the 1920's he surrendered to the ministry, becoming a Primitive Baptist Minister. He also attended several of the "Sacred Harp Singing Schools" that were very popular throughout the South. He learned the practice of Sacred Harp Music.
This approach to singing without instruments involved reading shaped notes. Sacred Harp Singing was brought to America in the 1700's in the early eastern colonies and spread across the Country. It seemed to reach its height of popularity in the South among Christian Evangelicals. Papa Rich (or Preacher Rich as people called him) became a teacher of the Sacred Harp Music. He drew out seven musical notation charts on the back side of old oil tablecloths.
Back then, country folks took large pieces of cotton duck and painted one side with oil paint. It made functional dining tablecloths that covered up rough, homemade eating tables that were otherwise considered too ugly by people who could afford nicer furniture. They also made great spreads to place food on the ground when having outside potluck dinners.
Papa Rich became a "circuit riding preacher." Communities could not afford to pay full-time ministers, so country preachers would adopt several churches to service within a month's time. Walker Rich had four churches and each Saturday night, or Sunday morning, he would pack his mule's saddlebag with a music chart and other essentials to strike out for one of his churches.
Then on Sunday after the sermon and the big "dinner on the ground," he would take his congregation back inside their little church houses to teach Sacred Harp Music. The buildings were small enough that he could string a clothesline inside the church walls. There he would use safety pins to hang his music charts. He had also whittled two wooden pointer sticks which he used with the charts to guide his groups of singers, as they practiced the notations on the displayed chart.
Upon his passing, I was the family's recipient of the musical charts. One I had framed behind glass, and the others I have dispersed among my younger nephews as family treasures. The oldest of the musical charts was completely falling apart, so I took fresh canvas and made a copy (as best I could) of that chart so that its notations would be preserved.
Papa Rich liked to use drawings of fish in some of the empty spaces between the notations on his charts. To distinguish his musical charts from mine, I started using drawings of songbirds. I have refined my process as time and experience has allowed. Instead of cotton duck, I have started using the back of primed linen. It seems to be more forgiving of my mistakes, as I work to achieve continuity while drawing out my shaped notes. Also, the darker value of the linen allows me to use white charcoal in the drawings of my additional forms (birds, flowers, etc.).
Currently, I am creating large copies of original songs using shaped notes. Below is my copy of Papa Rich's music chart where I have added barn swallows. There are also several copies of traditional gospel songs done in shaped notations. I hope to continue the exploration of this art form. I have enjoyed learning about its history and its connection to my family.