This is one in our continuing occasional series of excerpts from Murphy’s Banjo Newsletter articles. This is from the September 1990 issue, and appears on page 127 of Murphy’s book …And There You Have It! If you're a long-time Red and Murphy fan you're recognize the events in this column as inspiration for Murphy's song "How They Loved To Sing."
When I was little, growing up in northeast Georgia, we spent a lot of time going to church. As many people in Georgia did, we attended the Baptist Church. My favorite part of church was the singing. I could have a good time just looking through the hymn book. I was always very conscious of the songs we sang, and some of them I liked better than others. The Sunday morning selection of songs was never high on my list because, for one thing, we didn't do enough of them. I mean it was like, poof, two songs and then they were taking up the offering. In addition, the songs we did sing were too formal, to staid, too lifeless: "Crown Him With Many Crowns"; "All Hail The Power Of Jesus' Name"; "Holy, Holy, Holy." They were good for practicing your alto and for seeing how many versus you could sing without looking at the book, but that was about it. There was no joy.
Sunday evening was better because it was more relaxed. The men came without their coats (although not without their ties), and the ladies came without their hats, the choir forsook their robes, and the singing was "all together lovely." (Sorry. I couldn't resist. "All Together Lovely" is a song that only the most dedicated Southern Baptist would recognize.) Sunday evening was when we did the good singing: "Washed In The Blood"; "The Old Rugged Cross"; "Amazing Grace"; "Glory To His Name"; and maybe even "When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder", although we didn't do that one much because it generated too much toe-tapping. And you know where toe-tapping leads. Straight into dancing. And that is a no-no. Now, those were some songs you could put your heart into. But, even those songs paled alongside the singing that the folks did at our family reunion.
The Hicks-Sisk Reunion was held each August, the hottest month in the Georgia year, at a little country church that my Granddaddy Hicks had attended as a boy. The road leading to Amy's Creek Baptist was red Georgia clay, the cardboard fans found on the back of the pine pews were from the local funeral home, and a Sears Roebuck catalog graced the outhouse, which was a three seater.
I always rode to the reunion with Granddaddy and Grandmother so I could get there early without having to wait on Mama and Daddy who usually arrived at dinner time (that's lunch time to you) with my younger sisters and our portion of dinner on the ground. Getting there early meant I had to sit through a fire and brimstone sermon, but it was worth it because to get to the sermon you had to go through the singing. And those people could flat out sing. They were still using the old Stamps-Baxter paperback hymnals with the shaped notes and they sang all the good songs: "I'll Fly Away"; "Precious Memories"; "Life's Railway To Heaven"; "Farther Along"; "Just A Little Talk With Jesus"; "On The Jericho Road". It was the custom at that little church to invite everybody in the congregation to sing in the choir (otherwise they wouldn't have had a choir). Not wishing to appear to anxious, I always said "no" two or three times, just to be polite, you know, before I gave in. At the time, I hardly knew any of the songs but that didn't bother me. I made a joyful noise as loud as any of them. They didn't care.
After the preaching we would adjourn to the outside where already some of the ladies would be spreading out their tablecloths on the raw pine boards stretched between saw horses in one continuous long line. They would open the trunks of their cars and bring forth picnic baskets and pasteboard boxes full of fried chicken [Editor's note: no Kentucky Fried for them, no ma'am!], potato salad, green beans, homemade rolls, watermelon rind preserves, chocolate cake, and every good Southern delicacy that you could think of. We would eat until we were about to pop and wash it all down with Dixie cups full of iced tea or lemonade.
When all the eating was over and the tables had been cleared and the men had finished smoking, someone would toll the church bell and back into the church we would all go for my absolutely favorite part of the whole day: more singing. This was the time when you could call out the number of the song you wanted to sing: "Never Grow Old" (Number 210); "Come Unto Me" (142); "Victory In Jesus" (92). Different men would get up and lead the congregation in singing their favorite song. Granddaddy would always lead "Amazing Grace". When things started to wind down someone would get up and mention by name all the relatives who had passed away since our last reunion. Then we would sing "That Glad Reunion Day" (Number 300) and it was over. Except, of course, for more visiting and the lengthy Southern goodbyes. Those are my musical roots. This is where my musical soul lies. When the single exception of having to wear a dress, it was just about a perfect day.
[The article continues on to tell about going back to Amy's Creek many years later with her kids. But if you want to read that, you'll just have to get the book!]