Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Shape of a Song: Singing in Tull

As an unnamed cousin recently noted in the comments on my blog, the 123rd Old Folks' Singing was held in Tull on the third Sunday in May. I was in Lake Charles that weekend, so I wasn't able to be there, but, as always, it sounds as if a wonderful time was had by all.

Lynda Hollenbeck, an editor from the Benton Courier, attended the Singing this year, and she has a pretty amusing description of her experience. I suspect her "Friend DeAnne" also happens to be one of my cousins (how many DeAnnes can there be in such a small community?).

Here are a few excerpts from Lynda's write up, but for the best effect, you really should read the whole thing here.

We learned that there are sacred rules about Old Folks’ Singing. This isn’t the place where you do just what you want. There’s a plan, and sisters and brothers, you’d better follow it or you’ll get stomped. If you’re newcomers, as Ed and I were, you may find yourself confused. (EVERYONE else knew how to play the game.)

The afternoon session includes singing from the Cokesbury hymnal, which I grew up with at night services at the Cotton Plant Methodist Church, but the morning session includes no songs other than those included in the “Christian Harmony” songbook. That’s like looking at a foreign document to me. I’ve been playing the piano since I was 6 years old and have never stopped, so I do know a little bit about music, both instrumental and vocal. But don’t EVER put shaped notes in front of me. They’re scary.

Lynda describes her confusion over the shaped notes in the songbook until Janie Wilmoth tells her to "go to the third line to get the melody."

That makes absolutely no sense to me, but I started watching that line while listening to the voices and determined that, yes, that is what they’re singing, but for the life of me I don’t know why. If you ask anyone, they just tell you, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

The funniest part is when Wilson Duvall, this year's leader, calls on Lynda to lead a song. This means she has to CHOOSE a song on the spot, choose some people to help her lead it, and go up to the front and start singing.

That’s pretty much the setup for Old Folks’ Singing. Everything is done “the way we’ve always done it.” Once they get past a few introductory acts, they get serious about singing. There was no explanation as to how anyone is chosen to lead a song or what song he or she should lead. Wilson would call out the names of those who would be next in line to be the songleader.

I know this probably doesn't sound all that funny, but that's only because you cannot imagine the scenario. This tiny little church would have been packed to the rafters with people from all over the country (it's usually standing room only), and 99% of us are related by blood or by marriage. Lynda had friends in the audience, but she'd never attended before, she'd never seen a shaped note songbook in her life, and she was called to lead a song. LOL!

She did what we did last time we were there and asked to lead a song -- she chose Amazing Grace. You don't need a book for that. (There was no way I was going to put DH through a shaped-note-singing-test in front of my entire extended family and there was no way I was getting up there without him.)

In addition to Lynda Hollenbech's piece, the Benton Courier has a lovely photo of some of my cousins leading the final song of the day. If you're interested, you can see it here. I don't know the others as well, though I've met them all, but I would recognise Jean Carlisle anywhere, even though I probably haven't seen her in 15 or 20 years. I thought about visiting her last summer when I was staying with my mother -- Cousin Jean has lived next door for my whole life, but Mother was so sick, and then there was that little ... um ... difficulty with the snake ...

For shaped note aficionados, here is a scan of a page from the Christian Harmony songbook.


Anonymous said...

The memory of the snake is good, even if the reality was *not.* Or maybe it was just that you tell the snake story with great style.

Thank you for this - I love hearing about shaped note singing. I shall get out my book later and see what songs I know, since It's been a while.

Anonymous said...

I have showed my mom (who is in the picture) and Aunt Jean your "Tull" posts. They have proudly printed them off and showed them to anyone who will be still long enough. My mom will have her 80th birthday party at the Tull Community Center on Sunday afternoon, and I'm sure everyone there will get to see your posts. Thank you.

Doubtful Muse said...

Well, unknown cousin (you are Roberta's daughter or son? I'm sorry -- I don't know you). Please tell your mom happy birthday from a faraway cousin. I don't get to come to Tull often, but I think it is the best place in the whole world!

Anonymous said...

I am Roberta's daughter. My cousin Bruce Carlisle and I are about a month apart in age. I would love to know a new cousin! And, I have to agree with you about Tull. It's a great place and there's nowhere like it. I have taught English at Bauxite for 26 years and I love it.

Doubtful Muse said...

I'm Bonnie Cramer's granddaughter, so we are definitely cousins! I live about as far from Tull as is humanly possible and still be in the United States -- on Whidbey Island in Washington state, so it's not easy for me to get there -- but I love Tull and think about it all the time. I keep hoping I'll be able to make it there to Old Folks Singing one of these days, but it never seems to work out. I got as close as Louisiana this year because my husband had a business trip to Houston and Louisiana and I got to go with him, but there was no way we could make it to Arkansas too. Oh well, maybe next time. I hope your mom has a nice birthday party. That photo in the Courier of your mom and Jean was just terrific!

JP said...

Hi, My name is John Plunkett..I live in Tucker, GA and am an active Sacred Harp (4 shape) and Christian Harmony (7 shape) singer and have an interest in history related to these traditions. I'd be very interested in being in touch with any of the folks connected to the Old Folks Day, in particular, anyone that might have historical material---minutes, old newspaper clippings, etc. (I saw a Secretary listed somewhere, so am guessing there might have been minutes at one time?) Any help re: contact information would be email is Thank you.