For the past six years, I feel like I’ve had a second life that’s hard to explain to my everyday friends.
Around a dozen weekends a year, I’ll hop in the car and drive an hour or six to a small church in a small town somewhere in the South to sing gospel music.
No, I’m not a professional singer.
Instead, I’m taking part in the 100-year-old tradition of gospel singing conventions.
My first singing convention was the 2016 Tennessee State Gospel Singing Convention. I was overwhelmed at first with the amount of people and the volume of the music.
There were two pianos and probably an organ, and everyone was singing as loud as they possibly could.
But soon, I got caught up in the joy of it all. It’s cathartic to sing your heart out with your dearest friends. As a Christian, it’s a privilege to worship the Lord in the same way.
Singing conventions soon came to represent joy and belonging. I found a second family of people I never would have met without convention music. It has truly been one of the dearest gifts the Lord has given to me.
Now, six years and thousands of miles later, I have the privilege of being the president of the Tennessee State Gospel Singing Convention at Murfreesboro Missionary Baptist Church on Sept. 9 and 10.
The TSGSC started in 1934 in Davidson County. Since then, it’s been held almost every year all over the state, from Weakley County to Sullivan County.
What makes the TSGSC, and other singing conventions around the South, unique is their participatory nature.
A singing convention is not a concert, although listeners are welcome. Participants, many of whom attend dozens of singing conventions a year, spend a few hours singing new gospel songs out of books that are published every year. Many of them drive from out-of-state to spend time with their singing friends.
The songs at these singing conventions are published in the seven shaped-note system. They are religious in nature, many of them focusing on Heaven. The instrumentation is typically a piano or two with maybe an organ or a bass guitar.
Other shaped-note singing conventions, called “fa so la” or “Sacred Harp” singings, are more widespread. Those singings are typically acapella and use a single book called The Sacred Harp that has an older four shaped-note system.
Convention music, as most people call seven shaped-note gospel music, has a rich history in America. It is the precursor to today’s Southern Gospel quartet music.
The system is based on the seven tones of the scale: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and ti. Each pitch gets a different shape, which makes it easy to recognize what pitch you should be singing.
In the heyday of convention music, music publishers would publish at least two books a year of new gospel songs. They would then send quartets out to sing the songs to promote the music.
One of the more notable publishers was James D. Vaughan from Lawrenceburg, Tenn.
Songs like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Victory in Jesus” got their start as convention songs.
Southern Gospel quartets today will reference the “old convention songs,” but in fact, convention songs are still being written and published every year, albeit on a much smaller scale.
In order to sing these new gospel songs, convention singers are adept at sight reading, a music term that means performing a piece of music without practice. Part of the thrill of convention music is sight reading new pieces every year and finding your favorite songs.
Many of the singers were trained in the seven shaped-note system at some of the dozen or so singing schools around the South. Tennessee has four summer singing schools and others at churches throughout the year.
Even if you can’t read music or “sing the shapes”, a singing convention is worth attending at least once to hear the blend of people who are participating in one of the oldest forms of community recreation – singing. Their joy is contagious.
The food is a great bonus, too.
Murfreesboro resident Ashley Perham is the current president of the Tennessee State Gospel Singing Convention. She is also a reporter for Main Street Media of Tennessee.