“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another, in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” –Colossians 3:16 (KJV)
Like liquid sapphire rolling across a canvas, Clay County’s vistas invite visitors. Time is the brush that painted the traditions of our Blue Ridge Mountains.
Shape-note music was a tradition Richard Powers knew. He was choir director at Shady Grove Baptist Church for about 50 years. His face glowed as he led the old-time hymns such as: “Standing on the Promises” and “Amazing Grace.”
He was born into a musical family. His father, John Powers, directed the choir at Copperhill Baptist Church in the Beech Cove. Richard’s mother, Georgia, and his four older sisters also sang at the church.
Richard learned shape-note music when he was 8 years old. His sister attended a singing school and taught him the shape and sound of each note. Some are written as a triangle while others are rectangular or circular. It is a unique system, devised as a simple way to read music.
As he grew older, Richard taught singing schools in several churches. These classes usually lasted a week at each place. Part of his legacy included the many Clay County singers who learned music.
The singing master remembered the conventions that were held each May and September at the historical Clay County Courthouse on the town square. Singing groups from various churches competed for the coveted banner which proclaimed them the best.
These conventions drew many people who spread lunch on the courthouse lawn. Colorful picnic clothes beneath the maples gave a festive air to dinner-on-the-grounds. The feast included chicken and dumplings, fresh garden vegetables, country cured ham, banana pudding, fried apple pies, walnut cakes, and other food.
“We had a bunch who liked to sing,” said Richard. “Our youth choir scored 99 and on-half points at the convention. The judges said they knocked off a half point because they never gave anyone a perfect score in their lives.”
These kinds of community-oriented events helped take the edge off the rough times. It can be argued that music helped the mountaineers make it through the Great Depression. Richard was not stranger to those hardships. He said some of the best breakfasts he ever had were cornbread and gravy made from water and corn meal. There was usually an egg and some side meat, too.
Richard’s family worked hard growing a garden, raising a hog, and cows. But after the chores were done, the young people had fun singing. They met at someone’s house on Sunday afternoons and sang until they got a tune in their heads. Then they vocalized the words. “People don’t like to sing that way anymore,” reflected Richard.
He often sang with his wife, Jessie, and their daughters, Cheryl and Katie at church. The girls inherited their father’s musical talent and enjoyed making a joyful sound unto God.
Although many churches now sing contemporary hymns, Richard recalled the days when old-timers lifted praise with foot-tapping songs. Those days always lived in the soul of this singing master who kept a melody ringing all day long in his heart.
by: Brenda Kay Ledford