Benton Shape Note Singers Looking to Next Generation

Jul 7, 2012

Benton’s annual Big Singing is the longest running indigenous musical event in the country. It’s a gathering of singing enthusiasts in the Benton courthouse every spring. But in recent years, attendance has been dwindling. We’ll join Rose Krzton-Presson as she explores this tradition and why it’s struggling to bring in a new generation of singers.

A dozen or so people sit on the clerk benches in front of the Circuit Court Room in Benton’s courthouse. People are sitting, sorted by their range in the four part harmony. An audience sits out in the pews. It’s almost entirely adults. You can tell who’s a regular- the men in suits and women donning hats. There is one person at the back of the courthouse, though, that catches the eye. Her name’s Breann.

“Kind of. But then my grandmother scared me out of it. I was dozing off and then she started talking to me right in my ear and I was like [gasp] and it kind of scared me.”

Breann Rudolph is here with her grandmother and her grandmother’s friends. She’s 14; and it’s obvious she’s the youngest attendee. By how much…?

“First of all, I don’t really know. Second of all, I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell.”

Rudolph has sung alto in her church for a long time, but says the music at Big Singing isn’t like anything she’s seen before. She’s been trying to learn from her grandmother, but is having trouble understanding the shape notes.

“She taught me that the little diamond shaped note is mi and the triangle shaped note is fa. That’s pretty much all I’ve understood so far.”

There are two other shapes on the shape note scale- a circle (which is sol) and a square (la). This kind of annotation was popular in New England a few centuries ago. There’s little evidence of this kind of a’cappella singing- since most traditions were passed down orally. One songbook that’s managed to be preserved all these years is called Southern Harmony by William Walker. It made its way to Marshall County in the 1800s when James Lemon’s family moved there from North Carolina in covered wagon. When Lemon became an adult, he started the Big Singing. Over the years, it became sort of a homecoming for Marshall County. It was more of a fair- ball games and helicopter rides and local chefs showed off their handywork.

“They had coconut cakes and strawberries and everything. There were a number of people who would come for dinner, even if they weren’t singing.”

That’s Ralph Paris. He’s lived between Marion and Fredonia his entire life and is a Big Singing regular.

“In my childhood, my grandmother would sing certain songs while she was working in the kitchen. I was fascinated by the songs because they were different. I read in the Courier Journal about the Big Singing. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought, “That’s where I can learn some of these songs that she sings.”

Learn, he did. Paris has attended all but two of the Big Singings since then. Now he’s the Director at Large for the Association for the Preservation of Southern Harmony Singing- which has just 21 members. He’s seen it change from the community-wide fair-like event it was decades ago to the dwindling community attendance it has today.

“They don’t assign as much importance to it as I think they should. I think they have a treasure here they don’t recognize. They love to have the Big Singing. They really enjoy the idea of the Big Singing but what we need is them in here singing.”

Gene Gilliland is the President of the Recruiting singers has been his focus lately. He says the National Music Council called The Big Singing “the longest running indigenous tradition in the nation.”

“It’s for that reason that I’m trying to appeal to new people and a new generation to come and learn the music and be a party of this so we can continue the music for generations to come.”

Gilliland hopes seeing more younger faces like Breann Rudolph’s there will forge a stronger connection between Benton’s past and future.

“It simply ties us to our roots and for that reason is special.”

Rudolph found it special, as well.

“I think it’s really really pretty. I had high expectations for it and it went above and beyond.”

Maybe not for its historical value, but as a singer, she says she couldn’t think of anything she didn’t enjoy about spending her Sunday in the courthouse, with her grandmother, singing centuries-old songs out of a book full of hymns written in shapes.