Big Singing Day: A Review

Southern Baptist Church Music Journal vol. 9 (1990), pp. 76-78.

Deborah Carlton Loftis. “Big Singing Day in Benton, Kentucky: A Study of the History, Ethnic Identity and Musical Style of Southern Harmony Singers.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Kentucky, 1987. Vii, 263 pp.

Every year on the fourth Sunday in May, singers and listeners gather at the courthouse in Benton, Kentucky for a musical and social event called “Big Singing Day,” an all-day singing from William Walker’s Southern Harmony, a patent-note tunebook last revised in 1854 (reprinted in 1939, 1966, and 1987). Since it was first held in 1884, the event has evolved from a musical and social gathering of “Old Settlers” to a county-wide reunion, market day, and festival, and finally to a rather inconspicuous meeting that attracts only a few Benton families and their scattered descendants, along with a growing number of curious onlookers and musical outsiders. Big Singing Day represents an isolated and variant example of a widespread phenomenon in southern communities: the annual church homecoming and all-day singing (often from The Sacred Harp or another nineteenth-century tunebook), as well as the county or state singing convention held in a courthouse, school auditorium, or church. In her recent Kentucky dissertation, Deborah Loftis attempts to relate Big Singing Day to its counterparts elsewhere, and to trace its role in defining “ethnic identity” among its participants.

Loftis’s study consists of a historical account of Big Singing Day, an analysis of its repertory and performance practice, and an essay on the sociological function of the event. This historical section reveals the fluidity of the early gatherings, which were held in various locations before the site was fixed at the courthouse in Benton. At times the day figured prominently in the social, commercial, and political life of Western Kentucky, necessitating special trains to and from Benton, and inspiring journalistic comment and often religious censure. The bumptious vitality of the earlier gatherings contrasts sharply with today’s self-conscious attempt to maintain without change an idealized past.

For readers interested in hymnody and music in general, the heart of the study is found in chapters 3 and 4, the analysis of the repertory and performance practice. Recognizing that only a small portion of the 335 compositions in The Southern Harmony is actually sung at Benton, Loftis concentrates on a Core Repertory of only 37 songs sung in two or more years between 1982 and 1987, attempting to identify authors, composers, and sources, and to classify them according to textual content, origin, musical form, and style. Here, in a few details, Loftis shows too great a reliance on unreliable secondary sources. Oliver Holden (1765-1844) is mysteriously identified as one of a group that “followed Lowell Mason’s [1792-1872] lead in accepting European models of composition.” (102) Greenland, claimed by mid-nineteenth-century Tennessean W.H. Swan (but closely related to the minstrel tune “Lucy Neal”) is attributed to the eighteenth-century New Englander Timothy Swan, and Loftis appears reluctant to accept William Walker’s unambiguous attribution of Wondrous Love to James Christopher of Spartanburg, South Carolina. In a study of a large repertory, a few minor errors make little difference, but in such a small body of material the wrong century or country of origin may seriously skew the data. What is clear from the data is how many of the core songs were added only in later revisions of Southern Harmony, how many are in the “reform” style of Mason and Hastings, how few are “fuging-tunes,” how few are in the minor mode, and how few are by William Walker. The music sung at Benton may reflect that of the singing’s founders in the 1880s; if so, their taste was considerably more advanced or “reformed” than that of many Sacred Harp singers today, even though the latter’s much larger repertory includes music by living composers.

In chapter 4 Loftis describes the performance practice of the Big Singing, observing that, in the absence of singing schools or any organized use of the instructional Rudiments printed in the tunebook, the procedures and performance, including melodic ornamentation, are based on oral tradition. Her comparisons of Big Singing Day with Sacred Harp singing are astute, though somewhat overstated, perhaps because her knowledge of Sacred Harp singing is based on large singings and conventions in North Alabama and West Georgia. At smaller Sacred Harp singings in outlying areas, practices more like those of Benton may prevail. One may observe leaders who conduct in a desultory four-beat motion, or who do not move the hand at all; one may see classes without formally-elected officers, arranged in sharply varied versions of the “hollow square”; and one may hear the slow tempos and the comparatively relaxed voice quality that Loftis regards as characteristic of the Benton singers. Only in their prohibition of female songleaders and their adherence to a three-part texture do the Benton singers preserve practices abandoned elsewhere. Perhaps there is more continuity between the two traditions than either side recognizes. Research on the origins of the southern church homecoming, and on the association of these events with all-day tunebook singings, might shed light on some of the practices (including those of the singing school) that are shared among the surviving tunebook traditions.

In a well-reasoned sociological treatment of Big Singing Day, Loftis combines keen observation with a wide range of theories and methods developed by historians, anthropologists, and ethnomusicologists. After describing the geographic isolation of the region and its homogeneous settlement patterns, she characterizes the singers as a Protestant, white, and largely middle-class subgroup that reinforces its historically based ethnic identity through participation in the Big Singing. As a “cyclical gathering based on kinship and religion,” the Singing functions like other public rituals described by Ruth Stone and other field workers around the world: individuals deepen their personal relationships, they relate through their community to a mythic past, and they experience a heightened sense of “ritual time,” in which that past becomes real and immediate. Here Loftis provides a groundwork for applying these concepts to other tunebook singings, and to a variety of other semi-ritual events in late twentieth-century American life; she also helps to explain the survival of Big Singing Day in the years since 1931, when George Pullen Jackson observed that “dissolution is staring them in the face.”

David Warren Steel
University of Mississippi

Copyright © 1990 by the Southern Baptist Church Music Conference

[ Reviews | Sacred Harp Singing | Warren Steel | Music Dept. | UM Home ]