Two autochthonous music events, celebrating our Appalachian mountain heritage will take place over the next couple of weeks.
This weekend, Sept. 23 and 24, will be first annual Wears Valley Singing Convention for the area’s sacred harp singers. Saturday, from 10 a.m.- 3 p.m. the singing will be at Valley View Baptist Church, 2219 Little Cove Rd., Sevierville. On Sunday, from 10 a.m.-3 p.m., the singing will be at Headrick Chapel, 3739 Wears Valley Road, Sevierville. The events are free, but those attending are requested to bring a covered dish for dinner on the grounds each day.
Although shape note singing, widely known as sacred harp singing, uses sacred music song books, the gatherings are not considered worship. Nor are they considered reenactments of a dead tradition. They are community events keeping traditional singing styles alive. It is a uniquely beautiful sound.
Singers sit around an open square: organized into voice parts, sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, each group sitting on one side of the square. There is usually a moderator who organizes the singing, but no director, in the conventional choral singing order.
Shape note musical notation, used different shapes on the head of the notes on a music score, began in the 1700s in New England, as a way to get congregations to sing in harmony, instead of the tradition of lined-out singing with everyone singing in unison the words a caller yelled out before the beginning of each verse.
In shape note notation, each musical pitch has a specific shape. For example, “fa” is triangular, “so” is circular, “la” is square and “me” is diamond-shaped.
The term “sacred harp” refers to the human voice, not to an invented musical instrument. Much of the sacred harp singing today takes place in the South, with lots of gatherings in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
Locally, sacred harp singing in Knox, Sevier, Blount and Greene counties uses a 7-note tradition in the New Harp of Columbia song book.
“The shape-note singing tradition was strong up to the 1920s,” said Andrew Whaley, one of the organizers of this weekend’s convention. “Then it began to die out. But it began to be revived in the 1950s. I’d say that today, the tradition is as strong as it has ever been.”
The “www.christianharmony.org/schedule” page shows singings every week of the year scattered across the country from Oregon to Florida, with concentrations in the Southeast.
The Tennessee Stifflegs will take the stage at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6, at the Laurel Theater, on the corner of 16th Street and Laurel Avenue in the historic Fort Sanders neighborhood of Knoxville, near the UT campus. The program is sponsored by Jubilee Community Arts, an organization that promotes, preserves and presents traditional performing arts of the southern Appalachian region.
The Stifflegs are a four-piece Knoxville-based string band that performs old-time country, the mountain music that pre-existed country music, western swing and a little hillbilly jazz.
“We don’t really know how old some of the tunes we play are,” said Frank Bronson, who plays the lead fiddle and sings vocals. “The only way they can be dated is when they were first recorded.”
“I’ve been around this music all of my life,” he said. “I grew up playing with my dad and his friends.”
The other band members are Thomas McNair, who plays guitar and sings vocals; Nathan Black, who plays both banjo and lap steel guitar; and Tom Cook, who plays upright bass.
The band has performed at Barley’s Six O’Clock Swerve.
A trip to near-by Caryville, just up I-75 a ways, will catch the band at the Louie Bluie Festival, an event that celebrates the life and music of Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, on Sept. 30.
The Tennessee Stifflegs also performs at the Sugarlands Festival in Gatlinburg.
Admission to the Laurel Theater concert is $10. Tickets can be purchased at the door. There will be two hour-long sets.