Cullman County Courthouse hosts 127th annual singing convention

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An Alabama tradition with international reach: as German singer Joanna Bennett (standing) leads, Alabama folks across the front row and Irish singer Katie Ahern (second row, far left) join in. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – On Saturday, shaped note Sacred Harp singers and traditional music fans filled Judge Kim Chaney’s District Courtroom for the first day of the 127th annual Cullman County Courthouse Singing Convention.  The crowd was still slim when the first song was called, but by late morning, seats were full and a few folks were even sitting out in the hallway just to listen.  At noon, participants enjoyed a potluck lunch before they got back to singing; later they headed out to a fellowship dinner and a little more music at a local singing family’s home.

Singers and fans ran the gamut.  Young children played in the hall and occasionally joined in the singing, and 101-year old Ruth Duke, featured in The Tribune earlier this year (www.cullmantribune.com/2019/02/05/senior-spotlight-meet-101-year-old-ruth-duke/), enjoyed the music from a seat in the back.  Plenty of Cullman area residents were around, but the crowd included singers from around the state, across the country and even overseas.  

Katie Ahern from County Cork, Ireland and Joanna Bennett from Frankfurt, Germany showed just how large and widespread the Sacred Harp movement is.  Both are members of active shaped note singing communities at home and visited Cullman’s singing, among others across the region, at the invitation of a local singers Tom and Linda Booth, who met them at a singing in Ireland.  

According to Ahern, she came to the U.S. to sing at three Alabama conventions, and “of course, to visit friends, because I have such a lot of very good friends from the U.S. who visit us in Cork and I meet around in other conventions in Europe.”

After the day’s singing at the courthouse ended, quite a few of the singers headed out to the Booths’ home in the Simcoe community for a big fellowship dinner and even more music.  

Guest Juanita Beasley remarked, “We would not have a good singing if we didn’t have good cooks!”

After dinner, convention participants talked about what it means to be part of the convention culture.

Greg Allred, sitting with his wife Susan Allred, said, “I wasn’t raised in it, but what I’ve noticed is you don’t have to be brought in by blood.  You can be grafted into the vine, so to speak.  If you come in and you enjoy it, and you sing- you’ve heard ‘blood’s thicker than water-’ well neither are thick as gravy!  And that’s the way it works with this.”

Susan Allred added, “My dad worked on him for a long time!  My dad was Kenneth Fannin (a well-known name in the singing community, with a memorial event in Cullman County named for him), and he was from Double Springs/Addison Fannins.  He worked on him all this time.  He’d be so proud, because he’s been singing, because he didn’t give up.”

Greg Allred continued, “It doesn’t matter if you’re 84 or if you’re 8.  If you want to sing and you’re willing to get up and sing and lead and participate, then you don’t have to have a pedigree.”

Nicholas Thompson said, “I’ve been singing since I was 14 years old.  The woman who started me singing is a fourth-generation singer and, you know, I just always tell people she’s my aunt, because, really, everyone in Sacred Harp is your family.”

Looking at the men and women around him, Thompson explained, “They’re family, he’s family, she’s family.  (Greg Allred)’s absolutely right.  I’ve only been singing for eight years, but I’ve been treated like I’ve always been here.

“They don’t put lifelong singers above people who started yesterday.  You know, we’re all equal in this.  It’s all a shared experience, and they love you just as much if you walked into the courthouse today or if you’d been going there since you were a little girl.  And I love that; I love the inclusiveness and the welcoming, and the ‘We don’t care where you’re from or how long you’ve been here.  You’re here now; that’s what the important thing is.’”

The singing will continue Sunday, July 14 at 9:30 a.m.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com