Prairie Harmony Shape Note Singing

Prairie Harmony

The Bentonsport Sessions: Live and Natural

We offer here live performances of songs that our group of 14 singers has come to love over the past 15 years we have been singing together. The intention here was to present an unedited, realistic sound that non-professional singers can attain. We recorded this in the traditional form, singing toward each other with the microphones in the middle of the set so you hear what we hear when we sing together!

The Fifth Voice: The Magic of Acoustics

The additional element in this particular recording is what we fondly refer to as the “Fifth Voice” which is the room itself we are singing in; the sanctuary of an 1855 Presbyterian Church in Bentonsport, Iowa. It is a space that was designed for singing and that contributes mightily to the beauty of this performance. This exquisite little church, with its barrel vault ceiling and lively acoustics has a loving effect on singing voices, supporting the blending of our humble effort here. This church is a treasure and we do love to sing there! This project also is the attempt to record the acoustic nature of this building.

The Bentonsport Recording:

Click here to listen to samples songs from the CD.

Name of the


New Jerusalem

Jeremiah Ingalls
1796 / Issac Watts 1707

Psalm 119

Smith (?)


Justin Morgan 1790 / Issac Watts 1719


William Billings 1770/ Issac Watts 1708


Bradshaw 1835 /
Philip Doddridge 1755


Timothy Swan 1801/ Issac Watts 1707


Joseph Swain / Davisson’s Suppliment to Kentucky Harmony 1823


J.M. Day 1850 / John Newton 1779


William Walker 1840

Lloyd *

Raymond Hamrick
1980/ Issac Watts 1719

Barnet *

Seth Houston 1993/
a gravestone epitaph

Millbrook *

Neely Bruce 1990 /
Old Baptist Hynmal #1158

* Used by permission

Click here to listen to samples songs from the CD.

Prairie Harmony, the Group

Prairie Harmony is an informal gathering of singing friends from Southeast Iowa. The core of the group has been singing and presenting shape note music for over 15 years. Anyone who can carry a tune is welcome to come along and sing with the group. The group often sings for their own pleasure weekly. Call for time and location at 641 472 8422. See also,





Rebecca Bentzinger

JoLynn Gates*

Martha Kreglow

Susan Krebill

Jennifer Hamilton

Suzanne Niedermeyer

Margo Pedrick*

Alexandra Stimson

Doug Hamilton

Robert Koepcke

Aaron Ratzlaff*

Heidi Jo Salmonson*

John Stimson*

Tony Peterman

* featured in a quintet(Lloyd, Psalm 119)

Buy the CD

Click here to order Prairie Harmony's CD, or call Jennifer Hamilton at 641 472 8422 to place your order. $15 per CD.

CD Acknowledgements:

We thank the Bentonsport Improvement Association for allowing us to sing and record in their church. Fundraising: money raised by this recording will go to support the historic Bentonsport Presbyterian Church’s ongoing upkeep and restoration.

We also extend a very special thank you to Brian MacQueen, who creatively and faithfully recorded our effort with respect and support of our intention to create an unedited, natural sounding performance in a beautiful acoustic environment.

Photos and graphics for the CD, special thanks to John Stimson.

We hope that others will be inspired to try shape note singing, as there are groups around the country that are free and open to those interested. See

Check this website: for the community shape note sing schedule here in Southeast Iowa.

The Tradition: A Living Community Art Form

The distinctively American shape note or 'fa-so-la' tradition is an old example of a capella community singing that is alive and well in the United States. Developed in the American colonial period, this singing style has continued to evolve over the centuries through the interpretation of various voices of the spiritual/cultural American landscape.

With deep roots in Christian faith, these devotional songs were both entertainment and instructive, expressing a range of theology held by different sects that have composed music and lyrics in this style over the years. The perspectives range from 'deism' to 'fundamentalism' to 'existentialism'.

The Musical Structure: Old and New World Fusion

Musically, the shape note style has some characteristics that set it apart from other singing styles: open 4ths, 5ths and octaves that give the harmonies an earthy, 'chewy' quality. It has an almost Medieval sound, with a New World infusion that creates a type of 'hybrid vigor', a very American phenomenon!

Sung in four parts, and facing each other in a square, the melody is carried by the tenor line and often 'doubled' an octave higher by sopranos. The alto line is often more 'drone' like and provides a lot of the unusual harmonies you will hear. Overall, the style is natural, unaffected and freeing, as the intent is to sing to and with each other, not as a typical performance form with singers facing an audience.

In the Experience: A Natural 'High'

For a singer, these harmonic events in the music create a spiritual experience that may or may not have anything to do with the text! It is our feeling that this is a large reason why this old musical style has prevailed and evolved in the way it has. Shape note singing creates a kind of natural 'high' embedded in these magical harmonies. The moving and sometimes brooding lyrics add a mystery and depth to the experience whether it is one's personal belief or an insight into the spiritual underpinnings of American Christianity.