129th annual Cullman County Courthouse Singing Convention this weekend

Singers fill the second-floor district courtroom at the Cullman County Courthouse during 2019’s singing convention. (Tribune file photo)

CULLMAN, Ala. – This Saturday and Sunday, July 8-9, Cullman will celebrate 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 second-floor district courtroom for the 129th installment of a local crossroads of faith and arts that began in 1893, and was only interrupted by COVID-19. 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.

What happens at a singing convention?

Well, singing, of course! If you grew up in a church with hymnals, you will probably be familiar with many of the songs, though the style of performance might be a little different. Convention singing is unaccompanied by instruments, and focuses on four-part vocal harmonies. Songs can be joyful, loud and boisterous, or dark and soulful.

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: Takes it name from the title of the most popular songbook used.

Event host Tom Booth said, “This style of acapella music is sung from a book called “The Sacred Harp” that was published in Cullman during the 1960s and 70s, but dates back to 1844. The book uses shaped notes that were created as a means of teaching people to read music and harmonize in multiple parts.”

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 can request and even lead it, if you like. Performance is unrehearsed, and singers of all skill and experience levels are welcome, even if they are unfamiliar with shaped notes.

Following the music to Alabama

Booth and wife Linda moved to Alabama to immerse themselves in the singing convention culture. Linda Booth talked to The Tribune in a previous interview 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.”

Local culture with an international reach

Cullman’s convention has, in recent years, routinely drawn participants from as far away as Europe, and this year should be no exception.

Tom Booth said, “It’s not sung for an audience, but for the participants themselves, and once they are steeped in the tradition, some will travel thousands of miles to participate. Visitors from Washington state and even Germany are expected to attend this year.”

At a glance

129th annual Cullman County Courthouse Singing Convention

Saturday and Sunday, July 8-9, 2023, starting at 9:30 a.m.

Cullman County Courthouse, 500 Second Ave. SW (Hwy. 31) in Cullman

Second floor district courtroom

For convention veterans: Bring your 1991 Denson book

For newcomers: They have books you can borrow

Don’t sing? Listeners are welcome, too!