Sunday, May 17, 2009

An Afternoon at the Singing Convention

Singing conventions have been around for years, at least since sometime in the early 20th Century, and maybe earlier than that. As a child, I attended them regularly because my father was a avid singer. My sister played piano as well.

I had not been to a singing convention since sometime in my early teens. Yesterday, our historical society sponsored a singing convention in the Old Union County Courthouse, which we manage as a historic site. Large singing conventions were often held in the old county courthouses because the courtroom was usually the largest auditorium in the area. Thus, we were recreating a tradition that went on for many years. Our courthouse was once the site of the National Singing Convention.

Our county has had several natives who were gospel songwriters. Fred Rich and Hansel Hunter, together, wrote over a thousand songs. Rich's song "Jordan" has been recorded by such artists as Emmy Lou Harris, The Grateful Dead, and the Stanley Brothers. His family still releases his songs occasionally for publication in the various singing convention books.

Singing convention music is also known as "shaped note" music. Instead of the usual round notes on the staff, each of the seven notes is represented by a different shape. Singers who can read only shaped notes cannot read music written in the usual way, however, anyone who reads music by lines and spaces can read shaped note music. During a convention the singers sit together by parts and those who wish to choose and lead a song are chosen at random by the leader.

Yesterday, we had a full house in the courtroom, which seats over 2oo people. In addition we had between 25 and 30 singers and several pianists. The singing lasted about three hours and a great time was had by all. One family, which has a long and outstanding musical tradition, was represented by the mother and her three sons. The sons, all musicians and singers, have music degrees and are excellent musicians.

My father's family were great shaped note singers. For the first time in my life, I sang at a singing convention, sitting beside my cousin. We were both somewhat overwhelmed by the fact that we were recreating a family tradition that had been dormant for at least 50 years.

Singing conventions have been a dying tradition for many years. There simply isn't much of an interest in this kind of music anymore. I hope that we are able to revive it a bit in our area. It is fun to sing the lively gospel singing convention music. One must be a good sight reader and able to handle the movement of the various parts in order to keep up. For me it was a great adventure and much fun, although I am far from being the singer that my father was and that my music major sister remains.


Dirk said...

Wish we could have been there! It sounds like so much fun. I remember the shaped notes in the hymn books we used to sing out of when I was growing up. Your description brings up so many visuals. Thanks for sharing, & hopefully we can come up for one of the conventions there.


Georgia Mountain Man said...

We hope to do it again next year, so keep an eye out and come up to see us.