Singing conventions with large, enthusiastic crowds were Rabun County’s rock concerts back in the day. Think hymnals instead of the Rolling Stones
In reporting on the three-day Rabun County Singing Convention in 1931, the Clayton Tribune wrote, “The attendance on Friday was rather small but on Saturday the crowd had grown almost to the capacity of the court house…Sunday morning early, the great crowds began coming from three states and by the noon hour, there were enough folks here to have filled the auditorium several times and standing room was a premium all day.”
Starting in the 1800s, gospel-singing conventions were an important pastime for Georgians. In addition to the spiritual uplift provided from full-throated gospel singing, the conventions afforded isolated country folks a chance to socialize, get together with old friends and have some fun. For many, the social aspect of singing conventions was as important as the spiritual.
Singing conventions were an offshoot of singing schools. Many Rabun County churches held singing schools that often were conducted by itinerant preachers, who had learned their craft at similar schools. These preachers traveled from community to community and boarded with local families. The singing schools lasted from two to four weeks.
Singing by Seven-Shape Notation
To make it easier for singers who could not read music, the schools taught a system called seven-shape notation. In this system, geometric shapes were used to symbolize the notes of the scale. An equilateral triangle with a horizontal slash running through it signaled the sound of “do;” a semicircle stood for “re;” a diamond for “mi;” a right triangle for “fa;” an oval for “so;” a rectangle for “la;” a quarter circle for “ti;” and an equilateral triangle for “do.” This system enabled pupils of all ages to sight-read songs by the geometric shapes of the notes. As church congregations became musically literate to a certain degree, the enthusiasm grew for singing. Due to its immense popularity, the seven-shape notation system became a defining characteristic of southern gospel music.
Singing conventions evolved from the multitude of county singing schools. The conventions were attended by delegates from singing schools as well as ministers and professors of music. The first documented singing convention in Georgia was held in 1875 in Irwin County. The success of that convention soon was emulated by other counties. The first Rabun County Singing Convention convened in 1882 at a church in the Persimmon community. Rabun’s conventions continued on an annual basis for more than one hundred years.
Clayton’s Largest Annual Event
Featuring all-day singing as well as lunches and dinners, Rabun County’s singing conventions were three-day affairs, running from Friday through Sunday. The gatherings initially were held at community churches, but as participation swelled and became too large for small churches, the conventions were moved to the courthouse auditorium and surrounding grounds in Clayton.
People traveled by horse and wagon from miles around to attend Rabun’s singing conventions. In addition to local residents, participants came from other parts of Georgia as well as North and South Carolina. By the early 1900s, the annual singing conventions brought the largest crowds of the year to Clayton.
In writing about the 1902 convention that was held at the Baptist Church in the Chechero community, the Clayton Tribune reported “there are no more poplar (sic) gatherings in the county than the singing conventions and not one more enjoyed by the young as well as the old, and a vile wretch it is who is not moved to nobler thought under the sound of the verses that wafted from the beautiful little church of lower Chechero. The people of the community stood by it nobly and no one, we think, left hungry.”
Culinary Delights of 1926
The newspaper extolled the singing at the 1926 convention. “As to who led the best singing, suffice it to say that it would take the authority of the most eminent musicians to render an accurate decision. The bass was deep and strong; the soprano grand; the tenor superior and the alto most excellent.”
Convention-goers apparently worked up ravenous appetites after singing all day at the 1926 convention. The Clayton Tribune reported, “The court house lawn dinners spread all the way from the tribunal of justice (the courthouse) to Sheriff Rickman’s residence (the county jail just east of the courthouse)…from this bounteful (sic) spread of inexhaustible viands laden with unsurpassed good things unuterably (sic) satisfying the hungry appetites.” In short, the food was in abundant supply…and good.
Bringing Tuning Forks and Fandangles
The Tribune was a major booster of Rabun County’s 1927 singing convention. In a burst of exuberance, the newspaper wrote, “Come along, bring your song book, shake hands with everybody, pat them on the back, and tell them how much you love them, even if you have to act the part of a hypocrite just a little bit, you will feel better, and feel more like singing, and after all, that is the main purpose of the convention is to sing, and then sing some more, and then, sing some more.”
The newspaper went on to urge people to “Get out your tune fork, song books, rudiments and other fandangles that go to make up a big singing…There will be singers and lovers of good music from all over North Georgia, North and South Carolina together with agents and publishers of various books, to say nothing of the visitors, sweethearts and candidates.” Of course, the Tribune added a word about food. “And be sure not to forget to bring along a lunch for dinner and for fear that there might be some one here that did forget, better bring a generous helping for someone else.”
100-Foot-Long Dinner Table
The 1931 Rabun County Singing Convention was another great success, according to the Clayton Tribune. The newspaper reported, “Many prominent authors and singers were on hand and each had their turn at leading and singing duets, quartets and class singing…Handshaking was a feature of the day when old friends met and renewed their fellowship and swapped stories of the years gone by…and from all appearances, it was a good time to be in Clayton.” As for food at the 1931 convention, the Tribune wrote, “The little mist at the noon hour (on Sunday) did not hinder a bountiful table being spread, semi-encircling the Court House lawn over 100 feet.”
The fifty-first Rabun County Singing Convention was held in 1933. In reporting the event, the Clayton Tribune suggested what the courthouse would have said if it could talk. “The Court House, wasn’t it full? If the building could have groaned under the great burden of avoirdupois weight, it doubtless would have said, ‘My capacity is complete, my burden is bearable, the singing is melodious, the music appears as from angelic chords, it has the tenor of smoothness.’ The newspaper concluded that the 1933 convention was “one to go down in history as the best.”
Singing conventions in Rabun County are still held, but changes in society, driven by technology, television, movies and wars, have resulted in gatherings that are a shadow of their former selves.
In place of singing conventions as a form of entertainment, we now have at our fingertips all things digital, which has brought the world, for better or worse, into our homes. But a “bountiful spread” of fried chicken and other southern culinary delights is not included in your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in December 2021.