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July 24, 2016

Last Sunday it was my privilege to preach at First Presbyterian Church. Holt Andrews opened the service with a hymn sing. Members of the congregation requested their favorite selection from the hymnbook, and we all sang a verse or two. Several of the hymns were quite familiar: “All Hail the Power,” “Blessed Assurance,”  “Shall We Gather at the River.”

Sunday afternoon I reflected on the experience. It brought to mind so many times in the past when I sang hymns and gospel songs with my family or with a church congregation. I recall sitting in the shade of a wide wraparound porch of the Barnwell County farmhouse where my mother was born. Hutson uncles and cousins brought at least one banjo, guitars, harmonicas, a mandolin, a bass made from a washtub and a broom handle, kitchen spoons, and a scrub board played with finger picks. We sang “You Gotta’ Walk that Lonesome Valley” and “Precious Lord, Take my Hand” as if we were in a revival meeting.

I remember my large Neely family gathering around an old upright piano singing from memory to the keyboard accompaniment of an aunt. We sang “The Old Rugged Cross,” “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” and “By and By When the Morning Comes.”

This kind of experience is still available every Wednesday morning at Dolline’s restaurant in Clifton #2.  Folks gather around to sing the old hymns to the rhythm of a guitar.

How many times have I been with a youth group or a Boy Scout troop singing songs around a campfire? Singing provides an attitude adjustment. It helps a frightened child go to sleep. It has long been a way for those who are oppressed and downtrodden to express themselves. The songs of slaves and chain gangs became the fertile soil for the blues of Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and B. B. King. Songs from the coal mines, from truck drivers, and from farm hands gave rise to bluegrass and country music.

Johnny Cash put the experience of singing into a verse that most of us have heard.

I remember when I was a lad

Times were hard and things were bad,

But there’s a silver linin’ behind every cloud.

Just poor people that’s all we were

Tryin’ to make a livin’ out of black land dirt,

We’d get together in a family circle singin’ loud.

Daddy sang bass, Mama sang tenor

Me and little brother would join right in there

Singin’ seems to help a troubled soul.

Singing is good for the soul, and it is a part of my heritage.

William Neely was from the Fishing Creek community in Chester County, South Carolina. He distinguished himself during the American Revolution as a sergeant in the patriot militia. Following the war he was given a land grant of 640 acres in western North Carolina.  In those days, North Carolina extended all the way to the Mississippi River.

In the spring of 1779, a party of seven men, led by Captain James Robertson, crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains and traveled the Cumberland River to the area where Nashville, Tennessee, now stands. William Neely, a member of the party, claimed his parcel of land at a salt lick by the river, a place known to this day as Neely Bend.

William Neely built a cabin and returned over the mountains for his wife and children. They floated by raft on the Cumberland to the new home site. In 1780, Chickamauga Indians, led by Chief Dragging Canoe, killed and scalped William Neely, leaving his widow with fourteen children.

I found the inventory of William Neely’s meager estate in the Tennessee State Archives. He owned a brass pot, one pig, one cow, and four books:  the Bible, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, and Hymns and Psalms by Isaac Watts.

The hymnbook signals an important part of my heritage – family singing.

Singing Southern gospel on the porch of an unpainted heart pine farmhouse in Barnwell County or harmonizing the old hymns sung by heart around an ancient upright piano in Spartanburg County were just as important as a hymn sing at a worship service. We did as the psalm encouraged and made “a joyful noise unto the Lord.”

I rather enjoy my singing. The problem though is that other people don’t. Therefore I limit my vocal renditions to the shower, to songs accompanied by my guitar and shared with grandchildren, or to congregational hymns during worship. Having cut my eyeteeth on The Broadman Hymnal, I hold a firm conviction that more theology is taught through hymns than through Sunday School classes.

Spartanburg has a rich musical heritage. Hub City Music Makers, by Peter Cooper, published in 1997 by Hub City Writers Project, details our singing legacy. Pink Anderson, Hank Garland, Joe Bennett and The Sparkletones, The Marshall Tucker Band, Walter Hyatt, David Ball, Ron Wells, and Trottin’ Sally are all part of the musical tapestry of our area.

Singing Billy Walker was born in 1809, near Cross Keys, South Carolina.  He grew up in Spartanburg and married Amy Golightly. Walker compiled three shape note hymnbooks, which remain in print. Sacred Harp singers throughout the country demonstrate this tradition today.

Walker’s first hymnal was The Sacred Harp, published by Benjamin Franklin White, who was married to his wife’s sister, Thurza.

In 1835, Walker published The Southern Harmony, the best known of his hymnals. Using a system of four shape notes, he arranged many of the songs we sing in worship today. He was the first to combine the words with the familiar tune of “Amazing Grace.”

Christian Harmony, published in 1866, adopted the use of seven shape notes rather than the usual four.

Singing Billy Walker died in 1875 and was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame in 2011.

Walker is listed as the composer of many of the tunes in his hymnals, though he acknowledged that, in many cases, he borrowed from the living tradition of folk music that surrounded him. In the introduction to The Southern Harmony, he wrote that he used a “great many good airs, which I could not find in any publication, nor in manuscript.”    Working from original tune to finished hymn, Walker followed a common practice in his tradition, borrowing lyrics from established poets such as Charles Wesley and adding to the tune treble and bass parts, creating three-part harmony.

Numerous shape note singing festivals occur each year. Perhaps the best known is The Big Singing Day, held on the fourth Sunday of May at Benton, Kentucky.

Here in Walker’s home state, Wofford College has hosted the South Carolina Singing in memory of William Walker. Singers from throughout the Southeast gather for the annual tribute.

As a traditional part of the Wofford celebration, a group of singers makes their way to the old Magnolia Cemetery. They will gather around the wrought iron fence that encloses the grave of William Walker.  The inscription on his marker provides a brief summary of his life and concludes with the words, “Sing praises unto the Lord.”

One song writer has said, “There’s nothing like music to relieve the soul and uplift the heart.” Another musician wrote, “He who sings, prays twice.”

Singing really is good for the soul. Try it. You’ll see.

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