Benton's 129th Annual Big Singing

May 25, 2012

Every spring Marshall County plays host to one of the longest indigenous singing events in the country. The annual Big Singing is a tradition that has stayed largely the same since the 1800s. Rose Krzton-Presson explores history and significance of Marhshall County's Big Singing.

This year’s Big Singing is taking place on May 27th in the Marshall County courthouse in Benton’s downtown square. It’s free and the public is welcome anytime between 10AM and 4PM.

It’s Monday night in Marshall County’s courthouse. Ten people sit in the circuit court room. Benches and seats and portraits of past clerks surround them as they practice. That’s Gene Gilliland. He’s helping to lead some newcomers to this style of singing. It’s called shape note singing. Remember the Sound of Music? Well Southern Harmony only uses me, fa, sol, and la; and to annotate each syllable, and there’s a shape. Gene Gilliland explains how he was taught to interpret them.

“Fa is shaped like an arrow that is point far away, sol is round like a seed that you would sow, mi is shaped like a diamond that I want to give me, and as a good Baptist, he said, la is square and rigid. There is no grace in law.”

Shape note singing was popular in New England a few centuries ago. There’s little evidence of it, though, because many traditions were passed down orally. But one of the few books of shape note singing is called Southern Harmony and that’s what they use at the Benton Big Singing.

The Southern Harmony book came to western Kentucky when a family by the name of Lemon moved (in covered wagon) from North Carolina to Marshall County. One of the kids- James- decided to continue singing hymns from the book well into his adulthood. That became The Big Singing.

Ralph Paris is leading much of the practice tonight. He’s Director at Large of the Association for the Preservation of Southern Harmony Singing. He’s come to all but two of the Big Singings since 1960. Paris says his favorite part of the Big Singing now is the more challenging songs.

“At Big Singing there will be someone from somewhere and he’ll pick a selection that no one’s ever tried before. So just the exercise from learning that from ground zero and then testing your note reading skills is what I enjoy.”

Today, more outsiders than locals come to Big Singing. Gilliland says it’s mostly populated by musicologists and hymnologists because…

“The National Music Council said that the Big Singing we have here, started in 1884, is the longest running indigenous tradition in the nation. So it has a unique place in music history and in our region.”

Dr. Stephen Shearon is a Professor of Musicology at Middle Tennessee State University. He’s attended a few of Benton’s Big Singings. He says his first time was on a road trip while he was an undergrad at Northwestern University in the 70s.

“For me it was, in part, homesickness for the South generally. But I was also attracted to the music, the community, the experience both as a musician, a Southerner, and borning historian.”

Shearon specializes in Southern Harmony and Sacred Harp music- both Southern Christian a-cappella styles; and says regional culture and history manages to be preserved in the music. He says the Big Singing in Benton was, for decades, the only known place in the U.S. where this music was sung. For Shearon, the Big Singing wasn’t like anything he’d seen before as a music student.

“They invited us into the area with the singers there around the bench in the courthouse. We were allowed to lead and this was very unusual at the time.”

Really, anyone can lead. The way shape note singing works is that a leader defines the pitch, the whole group sings the song in syllables, and then the group sings the lyrics in unison; and when a few hundred more people join in on Sunday, it’ll sound more like...