In Southern folklife the singing convention has a long and illustrious history. Always commercial ventures, they changed in scale as communication, printing, and travel technology expanded their market. A new acquisition in the Wiregrass Archives, the Souvenir Edition, Tenth Annual Frank Stamps – Houston Co. Fair Singing Convention program (available for 50 cents), bears witness to that change.
Early singing conventions were called “schools” and were closely associated with the Shaped Note/Sacred Harp and similar gospel traditions. Shaped Note is the haunting singing in the movie Cold Mountain. Held across the South throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, they featured a visiting “professor” – often representing sheet music publishers – who held multi-day gatherings at churches and similar spots. They taught children by day and held community sings in the evening. Seven and five note scales predominated. Rather than teach “round note” music on treble and base staves, leaders taught “shaped notes”: four syllables (Fa, So, La, Mi) denoted respectively by a triangle, oval, square, and diamond notes. Singers stood in a square facing the center leader. The leader chose the song and set the key. They changed from song to song.
As folks moved into towns, they formed singing associations and held conventions. Some communities held weekly or monthly “sings with dinner on the grounds” while associations held large annual rallies headlined by entertainers. Shaped Note / Sacred Harp also changed under pressure from successful competition from the eight-note scale we’re familiar with, the advent of radio, and the invention of gospel music after World War 1. For example, the Northside Church in Bestville, Alabama (Walker County) held Friday night singings and excitedly announced that “Prof. Eugene Wright was with us with a supply of the new Stamps’ books” in late June 1937. A month before, Dothan hosted the Tri-States Singing Convention in its new Armory with a seating capacity of 4500. From 9 a.m. Saturday to 4 p.m. Sunday, association business meetings interspersed with “class singings,” lunch and dinner breaks, welcome speeches, and performances by publishing company quartets competing for a $75 prize.
Brothers V.O. and Frank Stamps of Texas began in the music field during World War I. Frank formed the wildly popular Stamps Quartet in 1920 to promote sheet music sales for the Vaughn Company. V.O. formed the Stamps Company in 1924 then expanded it in 1926, sending quartets under varying names and members throughout the South. Frank pulled away and his Frank Stamp All Star Quartet produced the first major hit for Southern Gospel, “Give the World A Smile,” in 1927, selling half-a-million records on the Victor label. The All-Stars disbanded because of the Great Depression, but by 1935 had re-formed to secure what became a 25-year slot on Dallas radio station KRLD.
V.O. died unexpectedly in 1940. Frank not only stepped into V.O.’s role with the Stamps-Baxter Music Company but also took over almost all of V.O.’s concert commitments. One of those was the first Stamps Quartet appearance at the Houston County (Alabama) Fair. The local organizers – Louis Oppert, Harvey Etheridge, and the L.J. Lundsford family – turned over the first day of the Fair to Frank Stamps for a singing convention, a tradition that continued for over a decade.
The 1949, Houston County Fair devoted its first day to the Frank Stamps-Houston Co. Fair Singing Convention once more, where the souvenir edition songbook was available for fifty cents. It featured the story of the convention and blurbs about five Stamps quartets from the region as well as the headliner, the “Old Gentlemen” of the original Stamps Quartet. The sing-along included forty songs, many published by the Stamps Quartet Music Company, like “What a Savior” (1948, see the shaped notes in the staff), “When God’s Chariot Comes” (1948), and “Jesus is My Best Friend” (1949). Others included “America (My County ‘Tis of Thee),” “Amazing Grace,” and “Just as I Am.”
The Fair was bigger than the Stamps Singing Convention. It had a midway of fifty rides and sideshows from Johnny J. Jones Expositions, horse races, agricultural and industrial displays, “beautiful canned foods exhibits,” a bevy of grandstand acts, and twice-daily shows from headliner Lew Childree of the Grand Ol’ Opry. All of this was capped off by a display of “atomic fireworks!”
Frank Stamps continued touring until 1950 when he focused on songbook publishing. He retired in 1962 and when he died at age 68 in 1965 the Texas Legislature passed a resolution to honor him as an “outstanding man who brought joy and pleasure to so many through his great talent.”
The Souvenir Edition, Tenth Annual Frank Stamps – Houston County Fair Singing Convention booklet was donated to the Wiregrass Archives by Mr. Marc Willis who discovered it while going through his parents’ papers.
It Came from the Archives is an ongoing series spotlighting the fascinating collections at the Wiregrass Archives. To find out more, visit online at https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives or in person in Everett Hall on the Dothan Campus.