Cornett keeps musical tradition alive
by Sherrie Norris
A native of western Watauga County, Cornett is considered the area's senior expert in shape-note singing, a practice of adding music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing.
Along with Neil Oliver, another local authority on the unique music method, Cornett is helping to coordinate a Shaped-Note Singing School beginning at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 25 through Friday, March 1, at Mountain Dale Baptist Church in Vilas. Adults will be taught by David Armistead, with classes for children also provided.
"David is former band director from elementary to college level and really knows what he's doing," Cornett said.
Cornett has not only led the choir at the Mountain Dale church for nearly 60 years, but he has also taught the basics of shape-note singing for about as long.
He has also written several shape-note songs, the latest of which he sent to a publisher last Wednesday.
Nearing his 82nd birthday, which falls on his 60th wedding anniversary, Cornett said he inherited his love for music and shape-note singing from his father.
"I've loved music for as long as I can remember and I've been interested in shape-note singing for a long time," he said.
He sang in his church choir as a kid, he said, until he left home at 17 and went north to work and he was called into the military in 1951.
Two years later, he was discharged from the military service, came home and was married on this 22nd birthday. "Five days later, we moved to Ohio and stayed a couple of years," he said.
It was during a visit back home, at Thanksgiving, Cornett said, when he attended church services with his family and shape-note singing "really took hold."
"The song, 'The Rapture Day,' rang in my ears for weeks," he said. "I finally contacted the publisher and he sent me a booklet that taught the rudiments of the music. From that little book, I learned the timing of the notes and how to use them."
In 1954, the Cornetts moved back home, and he resumed attendance at Mountain Dale Baptist Church, which his family helped establish.
"My dad, Clyde Cornett, had been leading the singing, but he was called to preach. The singing just kinda laid over in my lap," Cornett said. "I accepted it, gladly. From there, we just kept practicing the 'do, re, mi' scale. That's all in the world that shape note singing is. You might say it's a shorthand method of singing a new song."
Cornett likes to keep the old songs and likes to learn new ones, too.
Cornett said his father had a large note chart from which he taught the rudiments of the method. "I've still got it and I use it, to this day," he said.
In addition to directing his church choir, Cornett also began coordinating a weeklong music school at the church, about once every year. "It's a good time to practice and learn new songs and try to get more of the young people involved," he said.
Shape-note singing is easy to learn, Cornett said.
"Like everything else, it all depends on a person's determination to learn," he said. "You just need to remember eight little sounds -- and their variations, of course. Once you get the sounds, you've got 'em. They never change."
With a passion to keep the tradition alive, Cornett works with other churches in the area and has taught many shape-note schools in the region, including those in Tennessee and Virginia.
"About all of the churches, especially the Baptist ones, in the western end of the county, use shape notes," he said. "It's a lot of fun and a big part of our worship services. Some of the best singers in the world use it -- they can knock the black out of those notes just like they're shelling corn."
Cornett and Oliver, who leads music at Mabel Baptist Church, have long been affiliated with the Tri-City Gospel MusicCamp in Kingsport, Tenn., and for many years, have participated in the two-week camp dedicated to teaching shape notes.
"Neil and I serve on the board of directors at the camp and we go over there the last two weeks in July every year to help out," he said. "We have anywhere from 120 to 160 there every time, which tells you, people still love it."
Cornett and Oliver also coordinate the monthly Watauga County singings, which alternate between their churches.
They were also featured in a taped documentary several years ago, a production of the Watauga County Arts Council, called "Blue Ridge Shape Notes: Singing A New Song in an Old Way." The video, directed by Mary Greene, paid tribute to area gospel shape note singers and their treasured music.
One of Greene's goals, she said in an earlier interview, was to "accurately represent the beliefs of the singers, the motivations for their song and the human ties that bind these singers together."
She called it more than a presentation of a particular form of music, and said it was a chance to get to know, through the film, the heart of the people who carry on this particular tradition.
Greene referred to shape-note gospel music as "a world rich in memories, in relationships deepened by years of singing and walking out their faith together, and by joy in their salvation," and one also filled with the sounds of young voices learning to sing a new song in an old-fashioned way.
Cornett said that he sees shape note singing as an important part of our mountain heritage.
"It's not contemporary and it won't ever be," he said. "I'd like to think it will stay alive after I'm gone, but, like old-time worship, it will probably go by the wayside."
Cornett described his voice as "worn out, but not rusted out, and said, "I don't regret a note that it's ever sounded."