Editor’s Note: This essay on Sacred Harp singing in the Cullman County Courthouse is excerpted from Buell Cobb’s forthcoming Sacred Harp memoir. Thanks to Buell for permission to include it in this issue of the Newsletter.
It is no longer—as it may once have been—the biggest and best convention in all the land. But well into the twenty-first century, it carries a distinction nonetheless: it’s the last of its kind. An annual courthouse singing—and one dating back over a hundred years.
The start-up date for the Cullman County Sacred Harp Convention is difficult to pinpoint. Various sources say 1880s, 1891, 1898, 1900, 1901. . . . At some point, the printed minutes failed to record what was so evident, and so the train of time was lost.
The convention wasn’t, to start with, that remarkable. County seats up and down the state sported such a courthouse event: Huntsville, Fayette, Tuscaloosa, Russellville, Moulton, Decatur, Jasper, Double Springs, Guntersville, Ft. Payne, Gadsden, Ashville, Ashland, Dadeville, Alexander City, Andalusia, Greenville, Elba, Dothan and more (in total, as many as twenty-seven of Alabama’s sixty-seven counties). Other Southern states boasted a courthouse singing here or there for some period, but nothing like the flourishing in Alabama, the state which, for the twentieth century and beyond, has represented the heartland of Sacred Harp singing. Even an urban center like Birmingham, seat of Jefferson County, held an annual courthouse singing as late as the 1950s.
When Sacred Harpers could take over the local courthouse for a one- , two- or three-day sit-in, sing-in, pray-and-eat-in, you had to know that four-shaped music still ruled!—tenor, bass, treble and alto settling into those uptown surroundings as assumptively as a summer robin flouncing about in a courtyard bird bath. Over time, though, every other annual courthouse singing disappeared, as in each case the broader community that bolstered it lost interest and the class of local singers slimmed down or withered entirely.
In its heyday, the Cullman Convention, always the second Sunday in July and Saturday before, drew wonder—and hot and thirsty crowds. Longtime convention-goer Velton Chafin once told a story that brought specificity to the picture. At the courthouse event some years before, he said, he had come out of the singing chamber during one of the session’s breaks and nodded to an older gentleman seated on a bench in the hallway. “Having a good singing, aren’t we?” “Yeah,” the old fellow had grudged, “but it’s not like it used to be. . . .”
That line might be every old-timer’s refrain, but Velton, tarrying there for a bit, was repaid with a neat little narrative from someone who had first experienced the convention decades before.
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.” Velton 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.” 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,” the old fellow told Velton. 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.
A Cullman Tribune report of one year’s singing from that decade confirms the hubbub: it estimated the 1937 crowd at 5,000.
Five thousand. Well might the food committee from any of today’s conventions read that figure and gulp. There likely wouldn’t have been a food committee at all in that era, though—nor any responsibility for feeding the multitude. Families and individuals generally provided their own repast, although a commonly heard line might have been something like, “Come over here and eat with us—I’ve got ham, cornbread and a mess of turnip greens. . . .”
Nor, of course, would all those folk have been singers—or even intentional listeners. Some doubtless would have been there out of mere crowd-envy, maybe a bit of restless-leg twitching. Many more would have come to mix with either town or country friends and relatives they rarely got to see, to swap farming stories or speculation about prospects for rain. But singing was the core and cause of it all. And there likely wouldn’t have been anyone there—including now a late passer-through from Tennessee, or Birmingham, Montgomery or Mobile—who wouldn’t have understood that.
For several years in the ’30s, a blaring full-page Tribune ad greeted the event: “Cullman Hangs Out the Welcome Sign to the Annual Court House Singers.” The ad’s twenty-one listed merchant-sponsors “look forward,” it said, “to the great crowds that will fill our streets on these two great days.”
The lead article on the front page of the Tribune the week following the 1935 convention mentioned the “record breaking attendance” both days. “The weather was ideal except the heat,” the article stated, “and the farmers being well up with farm work gave an excellent opportunity for all who wished to visit Cullman, take part in the singing and listen to the old songs so dearly loved by thousands of old and young people.” And in possible reference to the traffic jams the convention often created: “So far as we have been able to learn not a single accident occurred to mar the pleasure of any one.”
Among the “beloved leaders” there for the event, the article stated, was “Hon. Thomas Denson of Jasper, and one of his brothers from Winston County who organized the Cullman courthouse singing years ago.” Tom Denson would die two months to the day from the convention’s closing session, and his older brother, Seaborn, would die two months before the following year’s session. The mid- to late-’30s, though, would have been an exciting time in the central Sacred Harp world with the publication of the Denson brothers’ 1936 revision of The Sacred Harp, especially in this area where Tom and Seab had taught so many hundreds to sing. Songbooks, probably for the first time in years, would have been plentiful—and highly prized. It must have been a joyful time, even in the Great Depression era, to sing or listen to singing.
Although the new songbooks were not yet off the press, the 1936 convention would surely have been abuzz about the prospects. But it was not to be. A week before the convention, a huge front-page headline in the Tribune warned, “Sacred Harp Singing Called Off.” An outbreak of polio in the state—infantile paralysis it was called at the time—had resulted in the Board of Health urging that all gatherings be suspended until the epidemic passed.
Two songs in the new revision sure to have been celebrated in those years were additions, and eventual classics, “Soar Away” (p. 455 in The Sacred Harp) and “Sacred Mount” (p. 456) by A. M. (Marcus) Cagle, who had grown up in western Cullman County and who lived in the area until 1937. A handsome figure and dynamic (and volatile) personality, Cagle may have been the territory’s preeminent singer, leader, and keyer of music—though he would be better known today for having contributed, over a period of five decades, eleven tunes to the songbook’s several editions, more than the total number of pieces by all but a handful of composers.
For three years in the 1960s I attended the Cullman convention when Marcus Cagle was present, and each time got to see him lead a lesson of two songs, as was the custom then—though not in either case one of his own compositions. In 1968, five months before his death at eighty-four, he and I sat together on the long front bench of the tenor. That scene, as best I can summon it now, represents to me of one of Sacred Harp’s finest features: a bringing together of people from different generations, different backgrounds, different ways of life. There we were, sitting side by side, blending voices and chatting, the young man and the much older man—he in fact three and a half times my age—a newbie with one of the great Sacred Harp composers of the songbook’s two centuries. Looking back now from a vantage point well within the twenty-first century, I realize I was singing that day with someone who had composed the durable tunes “Present Joys” (p. 318 in The Sacred Harp), “New Hope” (p. 316), and “Jordan” (p. 439) in 1908! He in his turn had sung with men and women who had sung with B. F. White. Thus do the generations overlap in this tradition, which so casually, gracefully fosters such a sharing.
Other names in Sacred Harp lore passed through the Cullman courthouse chamber in those years. Among the most popular of the 1936 book’s new “class songs” was “Odem” (p. 340), whose lead-off phrase in the chorus, “Give me the roses while I live,” would become one of the favorite sentiments in the book. That song by Tom Denson was named for a near-legendary figure from the era: Lonnie P. Odem, the financial sponsor of the book and the estate owner of Odem’s Chapel, the convention-worthy structure built near his home in St. Joseph, Tennessee, for the sole purpose of Sacred Harp singing. Odem was cited in the book’s first pages, under his photograph (though his name was spelled there as Odom), as “a good singer, the Sacred Harp’s best friend and the man who made this book possible. His love for T. J. Denson has known no bounds.” By the 1960s, the Odem-and-Denson-family relationship had strained, with Odem attempting and then losing a legal struggle with the then-stewards of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company over ownership of the songbook rights.
Sitting in the courthouse in 1967, I heard the arranging committee summon “Lon Odem.” Out of the class then emerged this short, slightly pear-shaped (by then) figure, who called for and led “World Unknown” (p. 428) and “Sweet Morning,” (p. 421) both without the aid of a book. If I could relive that day, I would certainly swap what was probably idle chatter with others for a meeting and conversation with this (for me) mysterious figure, who could have told so much about one of the most bustling periods in Sacred Harp history.
I always enjoyed the sessions I attended, the earliest ones especially. But I confess to feeling a greater draw, an altogether unfair attraction in fact, to thoughts of the singings before my time: those colorful early convention years and the tapestry of life surrounding a ritual so central to the community’s interest. It sets my imagination a-runnin’. I could fantasize, for example, about having the lemonade or Co-Cola concession the day of, or the hat and bonnet business beginning a few weeks out from, the big event. But even more—for just one time!—to enter the forbidding past and mill about in that hustling host, hear the bursts of music from out the high windows, push my way inside the hallways and into the courtroom itself, with all those old men crowding the bass, standing against the walls—most of them surely thankful on a hot July day for the big ceiling fans that labored above them, further sweetening the harmonies they made. Ah yes, to be there just once. . . .