History of the Ohio State Convention

by John Bealle

In 1992, when the idea first arose to hold a state convention, Ohio had regular singing groups in Cincinnati and Columbus. The semiannual Yellow Springs singing had been held since 1990 and the Cincinnati New Year's singing was held for the first time in 1992. During that year Fred Todt and others in Columbus began discussing having a school or some other event that would boost singing in Columbus. They discussed this with John Bealle and with Hugh McGraw, Secretary-Treasurer of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, from Bremen, Georgia. McGraw suggested that they organize a state convention, lasting two days.

Pursuing this idea, the Ohio singers consulted with McGraw and with Ted Mercer of Chicago and drew up a list of twelve annual dates that did not conflict with other Sacred Harp events of national or regional scope. After lengthy consideration, all except three were ruled out because of local conflicts or obligations. The three -- including dates in February, May, and November -- were placed on a ballot. By popular election, the singers chose the third Sunday and Saturday before in February.

Many who attend the convention in the throes of the Midwest winter wonder why such a dismal time of year could occasion Sacred Harp singing. The general feeling was that singers wanted to be able to be outdoors in the warmer seasons, and thought that a winter convention would have few attractions with which to compete.

The convention was to be held first in Columbus in 1993 and then alternate with Cincinnati in successive years. At the time there was not the slightest suggestion that groups might soon be organized in other Ohio locales. But the mid-1990s blessed Ohio with great prosperity in Sacred Harp singing, and there are now four communities who alternate as hosts for the convention.

1993 Columbus

February 19-21, 1993
Northminster Presbyterian Church (Saturday); Pomerene Hall, Ohio State University (Sunday)
Columbus, Ohio
Chair: Fred Todt
Vice-Chair: Linda Coppock
Secretary: Eric Conrad
Leaders: 64
Songs Led: 170
Out-of-State Singers: Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, West Virginia

It should go almost without saying that the first convention was one whose central theme was merely getting things right. Few Ohio singers had ever been to a southern singing, and some had not been to a convention at all. Along with Hugh McGraw's helpful advice, the factor of greatest influence may have been the contingent of a dozen or so Ohio singers who attended the Midwest Convention the year before. Chicago was always a strong influence, but their impact on the way Ohio singers conducted those early conventions was profound.

If the brightest spot of the convention was not the large contingent of Chicago singers, it was surely the exquisite signs hand-painted by John Bayer. There were four signs -- three with arrows indicating directions for divers looking for the convention, and a fourth for the front door, boldly announcing the event, the "Ohio State Sacred Harp Singing Convention." At the time, John had only been singing Sacred Harp for a year. As the convention drew to a close, John posed for a Chicago Sacred Harp Newsletter photo with Fred Todt as he passed the convention sign on to the next year's chair, Linda Coppock. Still today, these signs are passed along from site to site along with the convention itself.

Despite all beginner misgivings, Ohio's first Sacred Harp convention came off very well under Fred Todt's able leadership. The arranging committee kept things moving very briskly (170 songs for the two days!), Ohio's cooks prepared the first of many scrumptious dinners-on-the-ground, and the singing class responded mightily. We can hope that we lived up to the fine report that Ted Johnson wrote in the Chicago Sacred Harp Newsletter (Vol. 8 No. 5, March-May 1993):

And then there was Columbus--what a gas! Man, for their first state convention, they really hit the ground running. Perhaps it was the Zeitgeist; perhaps the time was simply ripe for Sacred Harp to catch fire in Ohio. But I think it just might also have something to do with the genius and energy of people like Fred Todt and Linda Coppock and John Bealle and John Bayer and some other wonderful and important folks. Talk about smooth running operations--there wasn't anything they didn't think of. They've even issued a splendid tape of the convention. Just listen to that tape and take a look at the notes that go with it and you'll get an idea of what I mean.

The cassette tape, now out of print, was made for commercial distribution from recordings made by Jim Page of Madison, Wisconsin.

1994 Cincinnati

February 18-20, 1994
Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship
Cincinnati, Ohio
Chair: Linda Coppock
Vice Chair: Michael Darby
Secretary: Debbie Hall
Songs Led: 190
Out-of-State Singers: Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Virginia, Wisconsin

The 1994 convention was held in the sanctuary of the Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship, a large meeting room with a balcony that overlooked the ground floor from three sides. The signature event was a singing school taught by Hugh McGraw, whom many Ohio singers had not met. Most who attended would also recall the stirring memorial given by Kelly Day of Indiana, which brought many to tears. On Saturday evening, Jim and Linda Coppock hosted a social at their house with an informal session designated for singing new compositions.

1995 Columbus

February 17-19, 1995
Redeemer Lutheran Church
Columbus, Ohio
Chair: Michael Darby
Vice Chair: Kay Bieszczad, John Bayer
Secretary: Eric Conrad
Songs Led: 193
Out-of-State Singers: Alabama, California, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin

The 1995 was held in a spacious meeting room of the Redeemer Lutheran Church. The signature of the convention was the "new composition" singing organized by Michael Darby and held at the Friday evening session. Michael had solicited compositions from singers during the year and had them neatly bound in a book, New Original Compositions in the Shape Note Tradition, which was given to all who attended. The book contained old and not-yet-heard compositions by John Bayer, John Bealle, Dan Brittain, Linda Coppock, Jeff Franklin, Seth Houston, Joe Keehner, Jim Page, Richard Popp, and Bruce Randall.

1996 Northwest

February 17-18, 1996
Ebenezer Mennonite Old Schoolhouse, Bluffton, Ohio (Saturday)
Ohio Northern University Chapel, Ada, Ohio (Sunday)
Chair: Kathryn and Charles Knecht
Vice Chair: Paul Foster
Secretary: Kay Bieszczad
Songs Led: 180
Out-of-State Singers: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin

The distinctive feature of the 1996 convention was the Saturday session at the old schoolhouse, a building exquisite in its acoustical properties and ambiance. Charles and Kathryn Knecht hosted a social at their home on Saturday evening.

1997 Cleveland

February 14-16, 1997
Lakewood Baptist Church, Lakewood, Ohio (Friday singing school)
Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio (Saturday)
Lakewood Women's Pavillion, Lakewood, Ohio (Sunday)
Chair: Paul Foster
Vice Chair: John Bealle
Secretary: Charles Wells
Song Leaders: 55
Songs Led: 172
Out-of-State Singers: Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin

The 1997 convention featured a fine singing school by Sacred Harp composer Dan Brittain, then a New York resident. Dan focused on singing fundamentals, and beginners who attended the school reported having received many insights into the workings of the fasola system. The school was held in a meeting room at Lakewood Baptist Church, home church of Joe Todd.

The Saturday session was held at the majestic and historic Trinity Cathedral, where convention chair Paul Foster sometimes served as organist. Beth Todd hosted a social at her house on Saturday evening. The Sunday session was at Lakewood Women's Pavilion, a public building with broad windows running continuously along three sides and overlooking Lake Erie. Snow fell throughout the day, adding to this pleasant ambiance.

1998 Cincinnati

February 14-15, 1998
Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park
Hamilton, Ohio
Chair: John Bealle
Vice Chair: Lorraine Sawyer
Secretary: Debbie Hall
Songs Led: 164

The 1998 convention featured lengthy quest for the perfect building. Convention chair John Bealle visited and over the summer measured fourteen buildings, some as far as an hour away from Cincinnati, in search of a building with low ceilings, hard surfaces, and floor space to accommodate exactly a 100-seat hollow square. The most promising sites were discovered by Mike Hieber, who knew of many buildings in Butler County. At one point, the group assembled a test singing in what appeared to be a perfect building, but the surfaces were so live and reflective that it was impossible to sing.

Then, on another trip, almost as an afterthought, the group visited the pavilion at Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park, also recommended by Mike Hieber. This odd-shaped building featured four pods with pyramidal ceilings set askew around a central fireplace. The test singing yielded acceptable though not excellent results, but the ambiance -- huge glass panel windows overlooking a babbling brook that cut through southern Ohio woodland -- was stunning.

Most singers liked this site very much and suggested that it be considered again the next time Cincinnati hosts the convention. The Sunday session featured exceptionally warm weather, so that some even ventured outside to the picnic tables for dinner. But the most memorable event was the visit from Richard Jones, a reporter for the Hamilton Journal-News.

Mike Hieber, who registered the singing with the local Convention Bureau, had gotten a call from a reporter who was interested in doing a story on the event. I think most expected that if anyone showed up at all, they would stay a few minutes and write a brief and perfunctory article. Richard Jones arrived just after lunch on Saturday. After listening for a few minutes and speaking with singers on the periphery, he was called into the hollow square to stand and listen as Michelle Cull led 178.

As the first chord was sounded, he was mesmerized by the powerful sound around him, mouth agape, standing throughout the entire song. When 178 ended and the next leader was called, he did not sit down! At last, he took an empty seat on the front row of the treble section and sat and listened. Overall, he stayed at the singing three hours!

The article, "The Sacred Harp: Keeping the Sound of Early America Alive," appeared a week later in the Sunday (February 22) edition. "They come to sing, and they come to sing loud," it began. Photographs by E. L. Hubbard included Ted Mercer and John Schaffer, DeDe and Marissa Heeter, Shawn Fenton, Bud Oliver, and an eerie silhouette of Jim Page leading. Jones interviewed Pauline Childers, who discussed differences between northern and southern singings; Henry Schuman, who spoke of the meaning to him of the religious content of the Sacred Harp; and Bud Oliver, who described his deep and long-held love for Sacred Harp music. Jones closed the article with a pithy observation by Bud Oliver: "You don't find any bad people singing Sacred Harp."

1999 Columbus

February 20-21
Capital University, Columbus, Ohio
Chair: Laura Russell, Lorraine Sawyer
Vice Chair: Steve Postellon
Secretary: Michele Biery

The 1999 convention was marked from the beginning by the absence of its intended chair, Lorraine Sawyer. Lorraine had assumed the role eagerly the year before and had worked throughout the year to make the preliminary arrangements. During the week before the convention, however, she was called to be with her father, who had grown seriously ill.

So, with only a few days notice, Laura Russell assumed the role of convention chair. She deftly assembled the committees and was well prepared when the doors opened on Saturday. Thanks to her poise and astuteness, the convention came off without a hitch throughout the whole weekend.

The convention was held in a large meeting hall at Capital University. The room did not appear at first to have the necessary space confinement to hold in the sound of Sacred Harp. But its chambered ceilings had a miraculous effect. On Sunday, when the singers packed the chairs into the end of the room, the volume of the singing was astounding. This was possibly the best acoustical space the Ohio Convention has enjoyed.

The quality that will always be identified with the 1999 convention was the power of the singing: there simply had never been a class of singers assembled at the Ohio Convention that could match this one. Almost from the beginning, there was a desperate intensity to the singing that seemed to build throughout the weekend. On the fasola email conference the following Monday, Stephen McMaster began a report with a discussion of the notion of tradition, alluding to the way Ohio managed to instill the essence of southern tradition into the convention. "I go where I believe the traditions are respected," he wrote, " which is a great lead in to: The Ohio Convention!

In my first time up to lead, I chose 528, which was the source of discussion in the van. Off we went with the shapes and this ENORMOUS wall of sound came at me from the Basses. I lost my place in the shapes as I was so startled by those guys! I regained my composure, but I have to tell you, it was a dream bass section and like nothing we have in Virginia on any regular basis. Naturally my other choices for the sing were focused on hearing those basses! There were many wonderful moments, White, Jacob's Vision, Raymond, and many other really fine songs which benefit from skilled leadership to which the group responded really well. They were, on both days, as enthusiastic and gutsy a class as I have ever led and rose to the challenge of 282 with alacrity and verve.

And who can forget the social at Brad Oglesby's house, featuring his homemade edition of "Sacred Harp Jeopardy." Standout contestants were Becky Brown in the "Finish the Line" category, and David Wright, surely Ohio's finest contestant in the "Page Number" category.

2000 Northwest Ohio

2001 Oberlin

2002 Cincinnati