Guest Columnist/ Tribune-Courier
Judge Henry H. Lovett once wrote, “Big Singing now is pretty well known throughout the country. There is still a lot of singing by the old southern note system, but this is the only place where the four-note system is used. We are proud of this fact. This is Benton’s Big Singing and it doesn’t belong to anyone in the world except Benton.”
Celebrated on the fourth Sunday of May, Big Singing Day in Marshall County is one of the oldest, indigenous musical traditions in the United States. The first Big Singing was held in 1884 when the editor of the Benton Tribune, James R. Lemon, along with his brother, George, and a few others joined together at the Benton Seminary School to sing from the Southern Harmony and Musical Companion song book. Their goal was to revive the popularity of the music they all had loved so dearly in their youth. The Southern Harmony note tradition was formed by William Walker of North Carolina in 1835 and quickly caught on in the southeastern United States. Shortly after, Walker and his brother-in-law, B.F. White, published “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion” song book and by the time of the Civil War, around 600,000 copies of song book were sold. In the aftermath of the Civil War in the south, the popularity of the signing style rapidly declined and by the mid 1880s the singing style was all but extinct. Thanks to the efforts of James R. Lemon, the Old Southern Harmony style was revived here in Marshall County in 1884.
Soon after the founding of Big Singing Day, traditions quickly followed and crowds increased year by year. The singing would always commence at 10am at the courthouse and the first song sung was always “Holy Manna”. The only time that the singing did not start promptly at 10am was at the 1948 Big Singing when Judge Henry H. Lovett (who almost always gave the opening statement until his death in 1971) was late because he had not finished teaching his Sunday School class at the Benton Methodist church. That year the singing started at 10:30am. The singing has been held at the Marshall County Courthouse every year except for two occasions: in 1884 it was held at the Benton Seminary and in 1915 it was held in Paducah due to the courthouse fire. In 1893, the signing was to be held in Briensburg, but due to heavy rain the singing was cancelled.
By the 1910, Big Singing was a regional event in Western Kentucky and became a homecoming day for meeting old and new friends and when former residents returned. In order for men to buy a new hat or for women to buy a new dress for the occasion, they raise money by picking strawberries in the numerous strawberry fields of Marshall County. During the 1920s, airplanes were brought out of Paducah and attendees of Big Singing would have an opportunity to take a ride for five dollars.
During the Great Depression, Big Singing Day saw a slump in attendance and many thought the event would die out. However, thanks to the Benton Progress Club that did not happen. A publicity committee was formed and with the help of the Federal Writers Project, new books were printed and by the early 1940s, Big Singing was seeing an increase in crowds. During that time crowds were so large (estimates of 7,000 to 12,000 people) that Main Street and Poplar Street were roped off and vendors were set up on every corner. On the north side of the courthouse where City Hall now sits, a photo booth was set up so people could get a photograph for twenty five cents. People would pack a lunch and have a picnic on the courthouse lawn. For years, Ross Griffith operated a stand in front of the courthouse where he sold sandwiches and drinks. He could be heard all over court square shouting, “Several years of public service and never a dissatisfied customer!” An annual baseball game was scheduled on the afternoon of Big Singing Day at the H.H. Lovett Park. This tradition continued until the 1950s. In 1964, the Southern Harmony singers from Benton attended a national singing convention in Cincinatti, Ohio. To keep the tradition going, money was raised throughout the county in 1966 to have new Southern Harmony books printed. In 1973, the Southern Harmony singers from Benton were invited to sing and represent Kentucky’s folk like during a festival in Washington, D.C. In 1976, the National Music Council presented a plaque in Benton to the Southern Harmony singers for preserving a pure and authentic music form. The plaque still hangs in the courthouse today.
All the songs sung at Big Singing Day have a religious meaning and are sung without any musical accompaniment or a tuning fork. The Southern Harmony notation uses only four notes (fa, sol, la, mi) which are characterized by their shape as well as their position on the scale. In order to make note reading easier, each of the four notes are associated with a shape: fa has a triangular note head, sol has a round note head, la has a square note head, and mi has a diamond shaped note head. Joe Creason, Benton native and journalist for the Louisville Courier-Journal, best described the singing style in 1948 when he wrote, “The leader, who stands in front of the seated singers, sounds the first note. The various parts--- soprano, alto, tenor, and bass--- take their cues from him. Then, while leader beats the time with his far right hand, singers go through the song, singing fa, sol, la , mi as determined by the shape and potion of the notes. After that the words are sung. Since the leader sounds the first note without true tonal assistance, he sometimes starts a song too high. By the time they reach the high notes, the tenors and sopranos often have gotten so high they need oxygen masks. At first the unusual singing may seem little more than a monotonous chant. They stat the one must acquire a taste for four-note singing. And, indeed, the music, with its harmony emphasized by lack of accompaniment, does take on a charm all its own after a few of the old songs are heard. ”
Some of the biggest supporters of Big Singing Day throughout the years have been Judge Henry H. Lovett, Ben Lomand Trevathan, Coleman Duke Nichols, Margaret Heath, Boone Hill, Mary Ellen Lemon, J.M. Johnson, and most recently Frank Nichols and Gene Gilliland. It is because of their efforts that Big Singing Day still flourishes today. If you have never been or haven’t been in years, I encourage everyone to attend the 129th annual Big Singing Day this Sunday at the Courthouse and be a part of one of Marshall County’s oldest traditions.
Tribune-Courier July 18, 1973
History of Marshall County, Kentucky, 1984
Marshall County Oral History: J.C. Lovett, 1983
Interview: Ann Williams, 2012
Marshall County Oral History: Nina McWaters, 1983
Marshall County Oral History: Valley Trevathan, 1983
Benton Tribune, 1892, 1893, 1894