CULLMAN, Ala. – This Saturday and Sunday, July 13-14, Cullman will celebrate what has become a unique tradition in Alabama: the state’s last regular courthouse singing convention. Singers from all over the state, across the country, and even overseas will fill the Cullman County Courthouse’s district courtroom for the 127th installment of a local crossroads of faith and arts that began in 1893. Singers, listeners and the public are invited to attend.
Once a common occurrence in courthouses all over the South, Cullman’s is now the only regularly scheduled event of its kind in the nation, though occasional special events will take singers into courthouses. 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, the tradition has managed to stay alive in Cullman.
Event coordinator Henry Guthery shared with The Tribune at last year’s event, “Used to, people every year would have annual singings and events at their courthouses, and they gradually got just closed down, and it stopped.
“But, anyway, people come here from Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida; they come from all over. Many of the people are new singers, and many of the people have been singing all of their life, but whatever station in life, they come. We have judges, doctors, lawyers, politicians, congressmen; we have all kinds of people come to the singings, including newspaper reporters, which we’re glad for!” he smiled.
What happens at a singing convention?
Well, singing, of course! If you grew up in a church with hymnals, you’ll probably be familiar with a lot of the music, though the style of performance might be a little different. Convention singing is unaccompanied by instruments, and focuses on rich four-part vocal harmonies. Songs can be joyful, loud, and boisterous–described by one observer as “organized hollerin,’” or dark and soulful as to convey the mysteries of faith.
Convention singers follow a long-standing form, singing from a modern edition of a songbook that dates back to the 1840s in a style known by several names:
- Shape/Shaped Note Singing – The notes in the sheet music have different shapes depending on the note in the scale: round, square, triangular.
- Fa-So-La/Fasola Singing – The names given to three note shapes. When the singers warm up at the beginning of a song, they’re not singing in a foreign language or speaking in tongues; they’re singing the notes by name.
- Sacred Harp – from the title of the most popular songbook used.
Singers sit in a square, grouped by vocal part-soprano, alto, tenor, bass-with the director standing in the center. The director changes from song to song, so if your favorite song is in the book, you’ll have a chance to both request and lead it. It’s not rehearsed, and singers of all skill and experience levels are welcome, even if they’re not familiar with things like shaped notes.
Said Guthery, “The event is something that is treasured. And some people come mainly just to learn how to sing, but for the majority of us, we sing because it’s like singing prayers all day. Anyway, it’s something that we all enjoy, and the fellowship that’s involved with it.”
Following the music to Alabama
Tom and Linda Booth are mainstays of the north Alabama singing convention culture, but they haven’t even been Alabamians for that long. Linda Booth talked to The Tribune about what drew them across the country:
“North Central Alabama is a Fasola singer’s paradise. We are California transplants, and we’ve lived in Cullman for almost three years now. Many people here are surprised that we first heard Fasola singing in San Francisco. I loved the spare, plaintive minor tunes and the adrenaline rush of fast, intricate fugues. Learning the shapes made it possible for us to sight-read any song.
“Over the years, my husband and I flew to singing conventions in several states, but in 2010 we came to Alabama for the first time. The courthouse convention in Cullman was one of our first Alabama singings, and I’ll never forget how we were treated as family that very first day. Right then, we pitched our tent towards Alabama. There is a refreshing way of making people welcome here; a genuine, family-oriented way of living that seems to be disappearing in so much of America. Alabamian singers reflect this, thus drawing singers from all parts of the world to come back and visit again and again.”
At a glance
127th annual Cullman County Courthouse Singing Convention
July 13-14, 2019 starting at 9 a.m. Saturday with a potluck lunch around noon, and 9:30 a.m. Sunday
Cullman County Courthouse, 500 Second Ave. SW (Hwy. 31) in Cullman
Second floor district courtroom of Judge Kim Chaney
For convention veterans: Bring your 1991 Denson book.
For newcomers: They’ve got books you can borrow.
Copyright 2019 Humble Roots, LLC. All Rights Reserved.