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Singing schools and gospel music are alive and well

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (BP)–The rumor of its death is highly exaggerated “Nope, we’re alive and well,” said Bob McLemore, retired plant scientist with the U.S. Forest Service from Jasper, Texas, who even wrote a book on the subject.

Many think the old-fashioned gospel singings have gone by the wayside with the advent of contemporary gospel music, drums and guitars, he said.

“Actually, Southern Gospel is the fastest growing of any sacred music,” said Bob Brumley, who is with Hartford Music Company in Powell, Mo. “It outsells contemporary and all other forms of gospel music.”

Brumley, who is the son of renowned songwriter Albert Brumley, said singing conventions are not as popular as they once were, but “will always be here.”

“When times get hard, and events like Sept. 11 happen, people start looking for things that take them back to their roots,” said Brumley.

Brumley was among about 500 people who gathered at Blunt Baptist Church, north of Sallisaw, Okla., for the 66th annual National Gospel Singing Convention Nov. 16-18.

The convention is a carry over from the days of singings on Sundays and singing schools, where teachers came to churches to conduct the schools, said Zane Harding, vice president of the national convention, and a member of Wainwright Baptist Church.

“In the early days, some churches would have preaching twice a month and singing the other Sundays,” said Harding. “It has been said ‘listen to the kind of music a nation sings, and you can determine its heart.'”

Although the by-laws of the National Gospel Singing Convention, Inc., say the purpose of the convention is to “promote and preserve gospel singing music,” Harding said it is also spiritual entertainment.

“People who attend these conventions say they would not go thousands of miles just to hear singing,” said Harding. “It’s the people they meet. In fact, they love it so much, in retirement years, they make all the conventions.”

Ten states were represented at this year’s convention: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

Several of Oklahoma’s renowned church musicians came from the background of gospel singings and “shape-note” music, which McLemore said is the medium through which the roots of Southern Gospel singing can be traced.

“This is not meant to imply that all Southern Gospel singers use shape notes,” McLemore emphasized. “But shape notes have persisted in the rural South in spite of widespread opposition.”

Brumley, whose middle name is Bartlett, said E.M. Bartlett, author of “Victory in Jesus,” and father of Gene Bartlett, director the church music department for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma from 1954-79, gave his father his first break in the music business. The elder Bartlett and Brumley were heavily involved in early-day singing schools.

June Wood, wife of the pastor of Martenville Baptist Church in Hamburg, Ark., said if it weren’t for the type of music taught in singing schools, “a lot of our churches wouldn’t know how to read music.”

“Our church sent 10 young people to music school to teach them how to read, write and direct music,” she said.

Few of those attending singing conventions across the nation are professional musicians, and none of them are paid performers; they just like to sing gospel music.

Buddy and Glenda Duke from Paducah, Ky. said they grew up on gospel singing in southeast Missouri. Buddy said he learned music by shape notes, and that’s the way he wrote his 85 published songs.

“We had Sunday afternoon conventions where teachers came to the church to teach shape notes,” said Glenda, who was organist/pianist in two Baptist churches for 55 years. She said the national and state singing conventions are worship opportunities, but also recreational–a sort of therapy. “The camaraderie is wonderful,” she said. “You see the same people at conventions across the country.”

The oldest attendee at the meeting was Robert S. Arnold, who has been writing songs since 1926, publishing songbooks for 60 years and going to singing conventions for 55 years. The 96-year-old Arnold, a piano tuner and stock farmer from Coleman, Texas, sang a solo with all the gusto, plus the voice, of a much younger man. In his early years, he sang with the National Quartet and the National Deep South Quartet.

“I love going to these singing conventions,” he said. “It’s a refreshing change from this new contemporary stuff.”

In his book, Tracing the Roots of Southern Gospel Singers, McLemore said from their beginnings in the 1720s when a few Puritan ministers first organized singing schools to teach parishioners how to read notes and thus produce more seemly music in praise of God, the singing schools developed into a popular social phenomenon by the Revolutionary period.

“A singing school teacher would come into a town and start a subscription to pay for the school,” said McLemore. “Classes were often held in churches, halls and even taverns.”

McLemore said although the number of publishers and singing school teachers in the South has decreased since the first half of the 20th Century, and the multitudes attending singing conventions have diminished, shape-note singers are still numbered by the thousands. He said several years ago, he and his wife moved to a new town in the South, and immediately joined a local church.

“Shortly thereafter, during church business meeting, a motion was made for the church to have a singing,” McLemore said. “I was really excited, until someone asked ‘who shall we get to come sing?’ The upshot of the matter was that the church hired a quartet to come sing, while members of the church listened.

“This is frequently referred to as a ‘gospel singing’ today, although the term generally is thought to mean congregational singing,” he said.

Although the 500 or so people at Blunt Baptist Church filled the rafters with enthusiastic congregational singing, McLemore said the observant individual will note changes in singing today. “The trend is toward contemporary music, the use of tapes for accompaniment and a decline in the ability of many people to read music. But not at singing conventions, which are alive and healthy.

The 2002 National Gospel Singing Convention will meet in Trenton, Ga. On the Saturday before the third Sunday in November.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: YOUNG SINGER and MUSIC THAT MINISTERS.

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  • Dana Williamson