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.