All Day Singing and Dinner on the Ground
Many churches today are sharply divided on the subject of church music. We older “saints” love the songs our parents and grandparents taught us. Younger folks lean toward “7/11 music,” (seven words repeated eleven times!) It helps my perspective to remember the songs I love were once considered new and suspect. And then, there was the “singing convention” movement that splintered churches in my childhood.
Our mission church out at Wild Horse Creek was addicted to the toe tapping Stamps-Baxter variety of music. However, on Sunday mornings when retired preachers drove out from town, or student preachers came up from the Seminary, we always sang sedately from ragged hymnals discarded by First Baptist Church in Chickasaw Springs. On alternate Sundays, minus a preacher, we rescued the shaped note hymnals from their hiding place in the cloak closet.
Shaped notes presented a simple method of teaching music to unschooled singers. The shaped notes corresponded to musical tones: do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti, do. The method emerged from the singing schools that sprang up across the South before the Civil War. These schools came to us from across the waters, primarily from England, Scotland, and Wales. By the 1930's, they were mostly a rural Southern phenomenon; the rest of the country finding them crude and provincial. True, the lyrics weren’t sophisticated; they tended toward tragic (often maudlin) personal experience. But this seemed appropriate for our condition. We weren’t sophisticated either, and times were hard. As family and friends left their dry little farms and headed for California, we found it comforting to sing about that great reunion in the sky where “the circle will be unbroken” when “all of God’s singers get Home.”
As the years passed and our church was able to have a full time preacher, we ruefully put away the shaped note hymnals, retrieving them only when we had an “all day singing and dinner on the ground”
Our version of this treasured tradition called for us to hurry through Sunday School and preaching to get out to the church yard. There, delectable food covered makeshift tables: mounds of fried chicken, fried okra, potato salad, fried pies, devil’s food cake and fruit jars filled with sweet, strong tea. When the food was gone, we retired to the auditorium to sing away the afternoon with the old songs of Brother J. D. Sumner, J. R. “Pap” Baxter, Homer Rodeheaver, and the stirring revival music of Dwight L. Moody and Ira Sankey. A portion of the afternoon was devoted to the Sacred Harp–another singing style our ancestors had brought “across the waters.” Sacred Harp singers gathered in a square with each side devoted to tenor, soprano, bass, and alto, respectively. The leader stood in the center, beating out the time and giving the pitch with a tuning fork. Sometimes the music was quite intricate as in “Rose of Sharon,” More often, we sang old favorites like “Wayfaring Stranger,” “O Come Angel Band,” and always “Amazing Grace.”
Over the decades, our “singing conventions” slowly died away and we sang exclusively from the Broadman and then the Baptist Hymnal. That’s what we did at church; at home it was a different story. There our lives were infused with southern gospel melodies as we “sang the glory down.” My father boomed “On the Jericho Road” as he went about his chores. Grandpa loved to sing “Camping in Canaan’s Land” as he milked his cows in the early morning chill. Mama sang “I’ll Meet You in the Morning” as she attacked crab grass in the garden. She often sang “I’ll Fly Away” to her chickens and turkeys. Those old songs reverberated around our hills in a gentle antiphony. They still echo through all my childhood memories.
Recently, I visited a large urban church a long way from Wild Horse Creek. This church has an impressive music program, including a full orchestra and I closed my eyes to enjoy a wonderful medley of songs about Heaven. Suddenly, a sweet, clear voice began to sing a capella:
Some glad morning,
when thislife is o’er.
I’ll fly away.
To a home on God’s
I’ll fly away.
Hallejuhia byeand bye
I’ll fly away.*
Somehow over the years, that dear old song has moved uptown! My parents and grandparents would be purely flabbergasted, but I know they would sing “Hallejuhia! Amen!”
*Albert E. Brumley, Harford Music Company, 1932.
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