Music comes from all directions as the song leader directs from the center. / W.C. Mann
CULLMAN – Over the weekend, Cullman celebrated what has become a unique tradition in Alabama: the state’s last courthouse singing convention. Singers from all over the state, and some who drove or even flew in from other parts of the country, filled the Cullman County Courthouse’s district courtroom to standing-room-only capacity, leaving some casual listeners to sit out in the hall. The 125th annual singing convention continued a southern tradition that began in 1893.
The singers follow a long-standing tradition, singing from a modern edition of a songbook that dates back to the 1840s in a style known by several names:
- Shape Note Singing – the notes in the sheet music have different shapes depending on the note in the scale: round, square, triangular
- Fa-So-La Singing – for the names given to three note shapes
- Sacred Harp – from the title of the most popular songbook used
Both days included free potluck dinners at noon for singers and listeners alike, another singing convention tradition. Between the two sessions, everyone was invited to two local singers’ home for supper, fellowship, and of course, even more singing.
During the fellowship, a few singers talked about what Sacred Harp and the singing convention culture.
Butch White (Good Hope):
“I’ve been around Sacred Harp singing since I was just a boy. There was an old wood-frame church house, Valley Grove Church, adjoining our property. They had a meeting there once a month, on the fourth Saturday and Sunday. They’d have Sacred Harp singing there once or twice a year. We’d be out working in the field, and we’d hear that singing across the woods.
“It’s sacred music to most of the people that have sung it all their lives. It’s got kind of a folk thing about it now, and a lot of people follow it because it’s old-timey. But it’s sacred music to a lot of people in this part of the country. It does something for your soul if you like it.”
Tom Booth (Simcoe; the host of the evening fellowship):
“The words just strike home. There’s an awful lot of scripture in these songs. To me, it’s worship; it’s a way of praising God for all that He does for us on a daily basis. Every breath is a gift, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s a way of returning thanks.”
Gail Doss (Nashville):
“For me, it’s contemplative, it’s soothing, it’s communal, and it’s just a good thing to do. It feels good. It’s sharing with other people, and being part of something that matters.”
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