Church keeps shaped-note tradition alive

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 10, 2012

A couple of weeks ago I was having lunch with my mom at Olive Garden, when I saw a friend of mine, Donna Kesler. Donna and I have known each other ever since I taught her daughters, Monique and Doris, piano lessons as little girls. They are now grown with families of their own.
When Donna came over to our table, I introduced her to my mom. They talked for a few minutes and then Donna and I caught up on the latest news. She asked if I was going to the “shaped-note” sing-along at Old Providence Presbyterian Church on South River Church Road in Cleveland. Having never heard of this before, I asked the date and time.
She said the sing-along and covered dish lunch is always the Saturday before the first Sunday in August from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Seeing my puzzled face, she laughed and said she didn’t know why that day was chosen, but everyone likes the saying and thinks it’s kind of cute.
At first I wondered why she just didn’t say the first Saturday in August. Then, I realized the Saturday before the first Sunday in August could be the last Saturday in July. If you’re a little puzzled now, don’t worry, you’ll figure it out. The more Donna talked about the sing-along, the more I wanted to go and promised I would attend.
This event has been a tradition for over 100 years and is known by many as the “‘Old Folks Singing.” To attract the younger generation, it’s also known as “FaSoLa Singing.” No one knows the exact date of origin, but based on information from older members in the church it’s believed to be around 1905.
Jon McCachren, music director for Thyatira Presbyterian Church on White Road, began leading the hymn fest about 10 years ago, taking over from the previous leader, the Rev. Shirley Jones. Jon marks the date on his calendar each year and appreciates that pianist Rachel Pence Smith does the same. Rachel grew up in the church and even though she married and moved away, she’s faithful to come back to play. For many years, Louise McLaurin and Rachel took turns playing, with Louise in the morning and Rachel the afternoon. The last few years, however, Louise has found enjoyment singing instead of playing.
Time passed quickly as Jon took requests of songs to sing from the “shaped note” hymnbook. It was almost lunch when he taught a 10-minute lesson on the history of this style of singing, saying since it is a dying art, he’s doing his part to keep it from dying out completely. Using a chart, he demonstrated how different shapes represent pitches in the musical scale.
After the lesson, Jon took a few more requests and by that time smells of butter beans, corn, casseroles and bread were drifting through the air. Judith Dellinger, interim pastor of Old Providence Presbyterian Church, blessed the food, thanking God for the fun and fellowship of the day.
I filled my plate with good old country cooking and then sat across the table from Rachel’s grandmother, Leila Pence. Leila is a member of the church and has been to the sing-along for 86 years. She said Old Providence Presbyterian Church used to be Lutheran, but about 1953 that small congregation sold the building and grounds to the Presbyterians. The Presbyterians liked the sing-along so much they kept the tradition.
Jon said he hopes the event will continue to grow and invites anyone who likes to sing, eat, and have fun to join in the festivities next year. Remember, it’s the Saturday before the first Sunday in August. Can’t wait to see you there.
Dicy McCullough lives in Rowan County. Her books are available at local bookstores, and Barnes & Noble. Contact her at 704-278-4377.