by Stephen Grauberger
Stanley Smith of Ozark remembers attending his first Alabama State Gospel Music Convention in 1978 at the age of 17, "My jaw dropped. I couldn't believe seeing 300 or so folks sing. I didn't know you could get that many people together to sing at one time with two pianos and an organ." As president of the 66th annual state convention, Smith welcomes singers to the two-day event to be held at the Westgate Recreation Center in Dothan, November 9-10. Delegates from nearly 40 counties representing approximately 60 local singing conventions from around the state will gather to sing in the seven-shape tradition of sacred music.
Shape-note singing conventions have prospered in Alabama since the mid 19th century. Usually not associated with church services, organized Christian singing conventions in the past were often the most popular events happening in rural communities. These regional singing conventions filled churches or singing halls to capacity, even to overflowing. These were the times to renew acquaintances and make new friends. Many a young man or woman found a mate during a singing and many friendships were cemented.
People rode on horseback and in mule-drawn wagons or walked for miles to attend a much-anticipated weekend singing once the crops were "laid by" for the summer. There might be so many singers in attendance that not everyone would have his turn to lead a song before the two-to-three day convention ended. Singing schools, teaching the rudiments of music to children, often accompanied these conventions. Convention hosts would put up "devoted" singers the nights when they could not possibly make the trip back after a day of singing. The singing would last all day and some conventioneers might gather to sing late into the night after supper.
Shape-note music is a method designed to aid singers in sight reading music by assigning a geometric shape to each note on a scale. The oldest method of this type is the four-shape notation found in Sacred Harp music, sometimes called "fa-so-la." The American four-shape system derived from the Old World usage of syllables "faw-sol-law-faw-sol-law-me" when singing the major scale. Four-shape singing began in New England in the early 1800s and eventually flowered in the rural South. Only four shapes are used, since there are only four syllables sung for the seven primary notes of the scale. Various books were written using the four-shape system in the United States. Later editions of B. F. White's Sacred Harp , originally published in 1844, are still used by Alabama's Sacred Harp singers.
A closely related shape-note singing tradition, sometimes called "new book gospel singing," began soon after the Civil War when the Reubusch-Kieffer Company in Dayton, Virginia began printing newly-composed books of music based on a system of seven different geometric shapes for the do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti solemnization of the musical scale. According to gospel scholar Charles Wolfe, "The newer songbooks were designed not so much for formal church service, but for special singings and for 'singing conventions' in which many of the singers in a county-wide area might gather to try their hand at sight reading the songs in the new books. In some areas, competitions were held to see who could sight sing or direct songs they had never seen before."
Conventions were set up similar to Sacred Harp singings and other four-shape conventions already in existence. The new book, seven-shape songs were (and still are) composed by those devoted to local singing conventions. They mailed their compositions to a variety of different companies in the hopes of being published, and without remuneration. Alabama natives have always been prolific seven-shape gospel song writers. Stanley Smith is one such composer working in the tradition today. He has a new gospel song published this year in songbooks Crossing Over Jordan , published by Jeffress Press, and Good News, published by Pathway Music.
The music itself is musically "progressive" and lyric content of new book songs tend to be lighter and more optimistic compared to the older four-shape song collections. In the early 1900s, music publishers like Vaughn and Stamps-Baxter sent out professional quartets to sing and promote new gospel songs found in their annual or bi-annual publications at regional singing conventions. Some of these groups flourished, such as the John Daniel Quartet and the North-Alabama based Speer Family, who popularized this convention music in the South on radio and records. Although there is usually time at conventions for "special" performances by soloists and quartets, "new book" gospel singing is primarily a group function.
Times have changed; with modernization, mobility and many distractions. Singing conventions today do not have as wide an appeal as they once had. There are fewer from younger generations to take the place of the departed. However, new-book seven-shape singings are held nearly every weekend across Alabama.
Write: Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, 410 N. Hull St., Montgomery, AL 36104. The Alabama Center for Traditional Culture is a division of the Alabama State Council on the Arts.