Sojourner Truth and shape-note singing

Sojourner Truth was born into bondage as "Isabella Baumfree" in a Dutch-speaking area of Ulster County, New York. During her childhood, she slept with her parents on the floor of the cellar of their owner's home. She watched her mother weeping as siblings were sold away to other landowners until she herself was sold away to a neighboring farm. Separated from her parents, she could do nothing to help them; her mother soon died, and her father was freed only to die a short time later out in the woods.

Though entirely deprived of any formal education, she possessed an excellent memory and ear for music. It was with these talents that she was able to learn all that she knew about Jesus Christ and the Bible. She had never set foot in a church but one night, while she was passing by a private house, she heard a 'circuit rider' preaching. She listened to him through an open window and heard the hymn that began, "There is a holy city..", which she committed to memory.

So began her life of faith. She became one of the foremost preaching women of the Untied States. In her powerful talks, she combined strong statements of faith with the singing of hymns in a loud, sonorous voice which deeply affected her listeners.

The hymns she heard were taught through a uniquely American form of musical notation called 'shape-notes' ('Sacred Harp') which allowed church goers to learn to sight read without learning formal music and created distinctive harmonies which have recently seen a revival of interest for their communal style of singing.

Click below for a short documentary on this style:

Read more about Sojourner Truth in 'The Calling' available now