Today was Pioneer Day in the little community of Owings in upper Laurens County, sponsored by the Gray Court-Owings Historical Society. I hadn’t been back to my old stomping grounds in quite awhile, so I figure this would be a good excuse to head down and take some photographs.
A parade was to begin at 10:00 AM. I arrived about twenty minutes early, but parking was already at a premium. Even this early, turnout was quite good. I watched most of the parade participants walk down the main street so that they could line up for the parade. In fact, I thought it had already started and that I was late. I learned, however, that it was the parade that was late getting started. Soon various historic regiments, horse-drawn carriages, antique cars, and antique tractors processed down the street. The parade took about thirty minutes.
In an open space across from the town several exhibition areas had been set up. There were booths for the Historical Society, and demonstrations of arts and crafts. There were a couple of blacksmiths, someone carving wooden bowls with hand tools, a demonstration of colonial surveying techniques, and cooking demonstrations. The Sons of the Confederacy were out in force, with at least two booths and lots of rebel flags everywhere. Wandering among the booths, I saw many community people I recognized, and some I knew from my time teaching at Gray Court-Owings School.
I wandered into the little museum that the Society maintains and was amazed at how many artifacts I recognized without even having to look at the labels. There were items from Gray Court-Owings School, as well as from the local stores. I saw some goods and fixtures from the old Bryson and Stoddard General Store. When I visited the store as a child, Mr. Stoddard was already 93 years old, and the store was a step back in time.
Back outside I heard music. Actually, music from three different sources. First, there was a group of bluegrass musicians jamming under one of the tents. Then there was a stage set up at one end of the street with amplification where the twangs of a country song floated. The third source was more ethereal, and for me, much more compelling. A shaped-note singing was being held in the Owings Music Hall.
The singing was arranged in traditional fashion. There were four sections – one for each part – arranged in a square with the song leader in the center. The group was using the 1991 printing of The Sacred Harp, of which they had several extra copies for drop-ins such as myself. Different people would be called up to select a song and lead the group. Someone would give the notes for So and Do, and the group would begin by singing through the song first on syllables, then sing with the printed text.
I’ve attended shaped note singing workshops, and I’ve heard recordings, but it had not held any appeal for me. I love the music itself – the haunting melodies and contrapuntal lines are fantastic. I’ve performed many, many settings of these songs, and have written a few arrangements for choirs I’ve directed over the years. However, the traditional settings just seemed like unrefined shouting. That changed with today’s experience.
First, this group was REALLY good. There was no refined choral sound like the Greenville Chorale, but they sang with gusto, and they knew they could breeze through the syllabication no matter the tempo. Sometimes the initial pitch given was so far away from the printed pitch that someone like me with pretty good relative pitch had trouble getting started. However, something about the sound was heartfelt and authentic. I’m sure the period outfits some wore and the setting had something to do with it. Amazing Grace (New Britain) took on a more raw, powerful aspect, rather than the sappy versions one hears over and over now.
I spent most of my time in Owings at the singing, fumbling over the syllables and enjoying singing melodies I know and love in a new setting. At noon, the group broke for lunch, and I decided that it was time for me to take my leave. As I headed out, one of the leaders, a fellow Greenville Chorale member, stopped me and let me know that there was a local singing just around the corner from where we live every "someteenth" Friday of the month. I may just have to give it a try.
The festival was still in full swing when I emerged from the music hall. I was tempted by smells of barbecue and hot dogs, but lack of air conditioning was starting to get to me. I headed on my way, glad to have stopped by for a bit.
The rest of my Owings photographs can be seen here on my Flickr account. There is also a short video clip on YouTube of the singing that I took with my camera phone. I could only record 30 seconds, and the quality isn’t great, but it’s what I had.
[tags]Owings, historical, South Carolina, shaped note[/tags]