Making a joyful noise
Published 11:00 pm Friday, June 7, 2013
About five years ago, Bonnie Caron drove from Washington State to Alabama with seven kids and seven acoustic instruments in tow.
Caron’s idea was not for the seven to come a-pickin’ and a strummin’ all the way to Alabama, but for them to have something to occupy their time in a new and foreign land.
Salted away in the hinterlands of Southeast Alabama, the Caron kids learned to play their instruments and learned to play them very well. They played together, first, at home and then ventured out to churches and events around the Wiregrass. Broken Strings Gospel and Bluegrass Band was demand and invitations stuffed their mailbox in rural Coffee County.
As the Broken Strings learned more about their new homeland and the “songs of the South,” they ventured into a cappella singing and found a uniqueness and a spirituality to the sound – a sound that pulled on the heartstrings lifting them up and lifting them out.
“Taken” by the music of the rural South, Bonnie Caron was always looking for opportunities for her and her “band” to learn more.
“I learned about a singing school in Brewton and asked if our family could go,” Caron said. “I had heard about shape note singing but didn’t really know what to expect.
“We all had a good time but it was just a brief introduction so we tried to make some sense of it.”
Wanting to know more about shape note singing, the Broken Strings enrolled in a the Tri-City Gospel Music Camp in Kingsport, Tenn. in the summer of 2011.
“There were 125 young people at the camp, from beginners to advanced,” Caron said. “Everyone helped everyone and we came home very taken with shape note singing.”
There weren’t many opportunities for the Broken Strings to share their enthusiasm for their new interest in the old music until “fate” took a forward step.
“We attended a wedding at Goodman Independent Church at New Brockton and, after the wedding, everyone was standing around talking,” Caron said. “The kids sang a song they had learned at camp, a cappella, and the minister Randy Hartley was taken with it.”
So taken that he attended the singing school camp in Tennessee along with the Carons in the summer of 2012.
“After a few days, Randy and I decided that we had to do this in South Alabama,” Caron said. “There are no words to describe shape note singing. It’s life changing. It grabs you and holds you and won’t let you go. You’ve gotta have it.”
In the fall of 2012, Goodman Independent Church began offering shape note singing classes on Monday nights and participation was good and interest in the old form of singing increased. The Monday night “singings” provided the foundation for the Wiregrass Shape Note Academy, which was founded by Hartley.
The academy’s first singing school opened on June 3 and will conclude on June 14.
About 50 people of all ages attended the first week of the school and about the same number will attend next week. A concluding “singing” on June 14 will be open to the public.
“Shape note singing is a combination of harmonies and blends,” Caron said. “It’s all harmony and it’s different from the music at most churches
Caron said the singing school teaches “singing.”
“It’s especially good for children because they learn to read music by the shapes of the notes,” she said.
Caron said singing school teaches the singers to sing without reservation.
“Shape note singing is loud because you want to put it all out there because you enjoy it so much,” she said. “You make a joyful noise.”
Stanley Smith of Ozark is co-coordinator of the Sacred Harp singing held annually at the Pioneer Museum of Alabama. He is a teacher at the Wiregrass singing school and said that he has been amazed at the interest and enthusiasm of the students for shape note singing.
“Attendance has been much better than we expected,” Smith said. “When we got started, we didn’t know how it would play out. We had older people who are learning the rudiments of music and the kids are coming right along.”
Smith said shape note singing is different from Sacred Harp.
Sacred Harp singers sit in a hollow square with the four parts on each side. The singing is a cappella and primarily the notes.
“Shape note singing is much like the Gaither groups,” Smith said. “It’s harmony singing and can be with instruments. It’s more the poetry than the notes.”
The Goodman shape note singers were featured last week on Mac’s Gospel Hour on Channel 52 and show host Mac Seay said the response was favorable.
“We had people call in and say they had not heard that kind of singing and enjoyed it,” Seay said. “Some called and said it brought back memories. We enjoyed having them. They brought a different kind of music to the show.”
Smith said that he can’t predict the future of shape note singing but he is encouraged by the response to the singing school and the attendance at Sacred Harp and shape note singings.
“That kind of music has been around a long time and I hope it stays around that much longer,” he said. “There’s no other music like it.”