The Only Courthouse In America With Sacred Harp Singing

by | Jul 7, 2018 | Breaking News, County News, Cullman, Interviews, Videos

The Only Courthouse In America With Sacred Harp Singing

Just under 75 people from across the world gathered in the 2nd Floor Courtroom (#214) of the Honorable District Judge Kim Chaney at 9:30 am Saturday.

By noon, the numbers had swelled to over 100 participants.

The occasion was the 126th annual Cullman Courthouse Singing Convention. The courthouse is again host to one of the United States’ best kept musical secret: Sacred Harp Singing.

Cullman County has the only Courthouse left in America with Sacred Harp Singing.

Sacred Harp singers have gathered from international locations and from many U.S. states to participate in this last-of-its-kind, colossal musical tradition.

The Cullman County Courthouse has convened this Sacred Harp convention annually (and almost continuously) since its origination in the 1890’s.

Judge Kim Chaney had these thoughts about the profound heritage playing out in his courtroom this weekend:

“Sacred Harp singing is a vital part of our history. Singers have been welcomed to use my courtroom for the last 20 years, and as far as I know, Cullman is the only courthouse in the United States where they still meet and sing. If you want your spirits lifted today, you need to listen to this sound of the past, and the present.”

The convention and ensuing festivities run until 2:30 pm Saturday. The courthouse will be open to the public again Sunday from 9:30 am to 2:30 pm with no admission fee.

This annual singing convention began in 1893. Sacred Harp singing was once a widespread practice in county courthouses across the nation for decades.

Now in 2018, Cullman County is the only legal courthouse jurisdiction in the United States that still conducts a singing convention and accompanying sacred heart signing.

The signers themselves are incredibly talented; their music is soul inspiring. The best way to understand what Sacred Harp Singing is all about is to experience it:

The next best way to get the basics of Sacred Harp Signing is through this documentary trailer – “Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp”:

This Southern spiritual tradition of shape-note (or Fa-So-La) method of singing is incredibly unique and auditorily compelling. Sacred Harp singers deliver their performance a Cappella. Singers arrange themselves seated in a square. Populating each side of the square, they are either treble, alto, tenor, and bass vocalists.

Sacred Harp at the Cullman County Courthouse has continued annually and uninterrupted since the nineteenth century.

It is believed that county health officials canceled the 1936 edition of this event due to a nationwide polio epidemic that swept across the American southeast.

Buell Cobb is the author of ‘The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music.’ He was the Chairman of the National Sacred Harp Singing Convention for fifteen years.

An excerpt from Cobb’s book recalls a time when 5,000 people would attend the annual Cullman Courthouse Singing Convention:

“It was in the ’30s, the old gentleman said, and he was driving from Tennessee to Birmingham down U.S. 31. Cullman was a spot along that journey. Approaching the township, he said, he came upon “a traffic jam.” He later surmised that this was not so much automobile traffic —though some of that, for sure – but mainly crowds of people, maybe some wagons, a few horses, and mules, crossing the roadway.

 

As the man drew closer, he saw a policeman directing the traffic. Edging forward to the intersection, he asked the officer what in the world was going on.

 

‘Oh, there’s a fasola singin’ at the courthouse,’ said the policeman.

 

The terminology piqued the traveler’s curiosity. He was soon able to park and make his way over to the big building.

 

‘You couldn’t get in the courtroom at all,’ he was told. Even the hallways were jammed. And outside pulsed this great throng of people—country folk come to town for the biggest two days of the year. And out the open windows, soaring sounds that captured the Tennessean’s imagination.”

Over the years, Sacred Harp singing receded from mass popularity. It has become far less visible across America.

Nonetheless, this heartfelt, individualistic, spirit-infused singing style has retained an extremely loyal population of practitioners. New converts to the tradition come aboard each year.

You can hear the deep thoughts and feel the emotional center Sacred Harp holds for some of the participants in this interview:

Henry Guthery is this year’s Chairman of the Cullman Courthouse Singing Convention. Guthery is a 4th generation participant in this event. He is also an enthusiastic evangelist for the proceedings:

“Look at all these folks. The music, the spirit, it gets a hold of all of us. I can’t think of anything more fun, inspiring or invigorating.”

The challenging work of orchestrating some 150 singers and up to 100 singing leaders over the course of the weekend fails to Arranging Coordinator, Carolyn Thompson. It is a thankless job and one that keeps her both occupied and focused – non-stop – throughout the Convention:

“I have been around all this since childhood. As a kid, I mainly heard old school tape recordings of this music. To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan.

Then, when I was older and attended my first LIVE Sacred Harp performance, I was hooked. I never looked back. I got it! It has been an incredibly personal experience. I love sharing it with all these super talented, committed singers.”

Officers of Cullman Courthouse Singing Convention:

Henry Guthery – Chairman
Richard Mauldin – Vice-Chairman
Nicolas Thompson – Secretary
Carolyn Thompson – Arranging Coordinator
Bea Aaron – Chief Financial Officer

The Only Courthouse In America With Sacred Harp Singing

Timothy Collins

Timothy brings an insightful holistic perspective as well as a mountain man tenacity to his various roles at Cullman Today. You can reach him at cullmantoday@gmail.com.

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