By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
If you love old-time Southern Gospel and even older Sacred Harp Singing, you’ll be glad to know that there is a group of spirited singers, aptly called the Spirit Singers, right here in Cullman.
According to Director of Senior Programs at Cullman City Park and Recreation, Angie Jochum, it all started about 10 years ago. “It was a beautiful fall day and about ten of us had gone hiking in the Bankhead National Forest,” said Jochum. “We found ourselves at the old Pine Torch Church, which is located in Lawrence County. This is an old split-log church that was built in 1890. People still meet there sometimes, so they have an old piano which is propped up with books where one leg should be.”
Gail Thompson, who plays the piano, was in the group. They sat there in the midst of the ancient forest, singing and making music that would have been familiar to those old hand-hewn walls in bygone days.
“We had so much fun. When we met for our regular Monday morning meeting I asked if they’d like to sing some more,” laughed Jochum. And of course they did.
What began as a small, spontaneous outpouring of joy has grown into a group of 55 enthusiastic singers who range in age from late fifties to one couple in their nineties.
Iva Nell Rogers, who was along on the hike, was the first song leader. Since then, Helen Orr has stepped up to become the teacher and song leader. She is quick to mention that people don’t have to know how to read music to be a part of this group.
“People just have to love old-time gospel music and love to sing,” said Orr.
She and her husband, Robert, who originally hale from Bryson City, N.C., came to Cullman from Nashville, Tennessee about 13 years ago.
New to our city, they were invited to an Oktoberfest Dinner at Cullman Regional Medical Center. “We sat with Louis and Edna Price, who told us about the singing at the Donald E. Green Senior Center, and we were excited to join,” recalled Orr. “At the time we belonged to a small church out in the county that didn’t have a choir, and since our whole family loves to sing, this meant a lot to us.”
The Spirit Singers often travel as far as Birmingham, and to many local venues, such as assisted living facilities, rest homes, revivals, festivals, and even funeral services, to bring joy and comfort to others with their music.
Singing such old familiar hymns as I’ll Fly Away, Just A Little Walk With Jesus, Heaven’s Jubilee, and almost always ending with Amazing Grace, the Spirit Singers have become favorites in the community.
“But the value to this, for our singers, is not only in the singing itself, but performing keeps us mentally alert,” said Orr. “It also gives us somewhere to go every Monday morning, a special outlet where we can meet and often form lasting friendships. We have a good time.”
“Singing is also good for people who need to do deep breathing exercises,” Jochum chimed in. “It helps to keep their lungs healthy.”
After the Spirit Singers had been active for a while, two of the members approached Jochum with another idea. “Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Fannin came to me and asked about forming a Sacred Harp Singing group,” said Jochum.
Sacred Harp Singing had its origins back in the 18th century “We use four shaped notes,” explained Kenneth Fannin. “Fa, sol, la, and mi. These syllables are employed in singing the notes, just as in the more familiar system that uses do, re, mi.”
“Most of us learned with seven shaped notes, but we think this is more beautiful,” Fannin added.
Called ‘dispersed harmony’ Sacred Harp singing parts are written on four different lines so that each part can go as low or as high as the singer wants, without interfering with another singer’s part.
The Fannin’s are experienced in directing music, having started their vocation together some 50 years ago. Kenneth Fannin has been directing music for 68 years. He started directing Sacred Harp music 13 years ago, and has also attended several singing schools.
“I grew up singing this music,” said Fannin. “My dad wrote music, and my mom could sing any part.”
According to Wikipedia, Sacred Harp singing is a tradition of sacred choral music that took root in the Southern regions of the United States. It is part of the larger tradition of shape note music. Sacred Harp music is performed a capella (voice only, without instruments) and originated as Protestant Christian music. The songs sung are primarily from the book The Sacred Harp.
“This type of singing makes use of pure voices,” explained Fannin.
The earliest roots of Sacred Harp can be traced back to the “country parish music” of early 18th century England. Around the mid 18th century, the forms and styles of English country parish music were introduced to America. Passed on by tradition from one generation to another, they were often associated with the people who settled in the Appalachian Mountains.
Mr. Fannin enlisted the help of a young man by the name of Christopher Mann, who is a member of his church, Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist, on St. Joseph Street in Cullman.
Mann, 20, who always sang in church, was introduced to Sacred Harp singing by his grandfather, Delone Cobbs, of Vinemont, who has been singing it all of his life. “My grandfather took me to a singing in Huntsville when I was about 15,” recalled Mann. “It just grabbed me.”
“Sacred Harp singing has spread all over the world from here in the South,” said Mann. “It was designed so that people who didn’t read music could learn how to sing.”
All the groups welcome visitors to their practices, and at performances, the audience is encouraged to join in. “We always take extra books,” said Mann.
“We also have a Senior Spirit Quartet, made up of four Senior Spirit Singers, Harold Cowan, Robert Orr, Wavelyn Thorn, and Geraldine Scott,” said Jochum.
The Sacred Harp group has been in training for about four months. “Some people might be intimidated by it, but we are here to teach them,” encouraged Carol Fannin.
“It isn’t hard, it just takes some practice,” Mann added.
The next performance by the Senior Spirit Singers, including the Sacred Harp Singers, will be at Northbrook Baptist Church at their monthly senior meeting at 10:30 AM, on November 6th, 2012.
If you are interested in joining the Senior Spirit Singers, the Sacred Harp classes, or on booking them for a performance, please contact Angie Jochum at 256-734-4803.