125th annual singing convention coming to courthouse this weekend


This year’s convention is receiving special attention as part of the state’s bicentennial celebration.

CULLMAN – On Saturday, July 8 and Sunday, July 9, the Cullman County Courthouse will host its 125th annual singing convention, continuing a tradition that began in 1893.  Once a common occurrence in courthouses all over the south, Cullman’s is now the only one of its kind in the nation.

According to event chairman and fourth-generation convention singer Henry Guthery, “At one time, every county had singings at the courthouse: in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, all over.  It was really widespread, then things changed.  Cullman is the last active courthouse singing in the United States.”

Factors ranging from shifting cultural tastes and lack of interest in old fashioned things to concerns about church-state separation led to a decline in courthouse singings over the years.  Though it may not draw crowds of thousands like it used to, Cullman has managed to keep its tradition alive.

“We have such cooperative politicians here,” said Guthery, “and the people at the courthouse are so helpful.”

So just what is a singing convention? The Cullman singing convention uses a form of musical notation known as “shape-note,” in which particular notes are indicated by the shape of the note in the sheet music.  Each shape has a name: “Fa,” “So,” “La,” or “Mi,” giving the style the name “fasola singing.”  From the title of the most popular songbook used in conventions, the style is also known as “Sacred Harp.”

Singers sit in a square in which each side is occupied by one of the four voice parts: soprano, alto, tenor and bass.  Seating is also provided for those who just want to listen.  Song leaders stand in the middle of the square to direct.

Most importantly for many fans, the style is unaccompanied by any instrument.  They happily point out that the “sacred harp” that names the book and style is a reference to the human voice.

Conventions have taken place in Alabama since at least the 1840s.  One singing in the town of Gordo has taken place annually since 1844.

Guthery expects around 150 singers per day to attend this year’s convention this weekend in Cullman, with up to 96 song leaders.  And it won’t just be Cullmanites who show up.

“We’ll have people coming from Georgia, Florida, Tennessee,” said Guthery, “even as far away as New York and all over New England.”

Singing will start at 9:30 a.m. each day and continue until 2:30 p.m., with occasional rest breaks and lunch from 12-1.  Garden-fresh items prepared by ladies from the singing association will be supplemented by local caterers.  According to Guthery, “We always have an abundance of food and drink.”

For those who want to participate, or for those who just want to experience this musical tradition as audience members, the courthouse doors will be open.  The public is invited to attend, listen, jump in and try singing, eat dinner on the grounds, and enjoy some old-school fellowship.

“It’s an exuberant thing,” said Guthery, “fun and very religious.  It gets ahold of you, and you can’t let it go.”

At a glance

125th annual Cullman Courthouse Singing Convention

Saturday and Sunday, July 8-9, 2017; from 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. both days

Cullman County Courthouse, 500 Second Ave. SW, Cullman

For veteran singers: Bring your 1991 Denson book.

For rookies: They’ve got books.


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