Diana Singing

Friday, September 19, 2008
Diana Singing patrons get ready for the event.

DIANA -- They come by car, by bus and by 30-foot motor homes that arrive as early as three weeks ahead of time. Some have traveled from as far away as Canada.

They mark the dates on their calendars a year in advance and plan their entire summer around being here. Some have been coming for so long they can no longer count the number of times on both hands.

They come to renew old friendships and to make new ones, to leave the temporal cares of this life behind and to set their sights on something more eternal.

And they come to sing.

Old-timers, the ones who have been coming here the longest, insist you will hear no sweeter sound this side of heaven.

The Diana Singing will turn 40 next year. Every second Friday and Saturday in June and September for nearly half a century now people have gathered in this secluded crossroads to add their voices to those that have gone before them.

There are no instruments, only the voices of people singing hymns that were old when their grandmothers sang them. They sit on rude benches and discarded pews under a hay shed open to the elements. Funeral home fans can be seen working in abundance.

Just a few steps away, CSX trains regularly rumble by at all hours of the day and night. You can purchase CDs of past singings on which the mournful wail of a diesel air horn can be heard in the background as the faithful belt out another chorus of "Marching to Zion."

The Diana Singing began casually, almost by accident. Tom Holland, a tall, easy-going man whose self-effacing drawl masks a git-'er-done determination, was there when the idea for the singing first took shape back in 1969.

Holland had just preached a gospel meeting at the Diana Church of Christ, which stands a stone's throw from the singing shed. Still basking in the spirit from several nights of preaching and singing the gospel, Holland and song leader William Sanders began to brainstorm about ways to keep that spirit alive.

"The Wally Fowler Quartet was having an all-night singing at the Ryman Auditorium," recalls Holland. "Bill said, 'If people will go to hear a quartet sing all night, why wouldn't people come sing all night?'"

That first year the singing was held in the church building at Diana. To make sure they would not be singing to a bunch of empty pews, Holland and Sanders pooled $15 of their own money to have cards printed advertising the time and place. They kept the cards in their shirt pockets and passed them out to everyone they met.

They needn't have worried. When the time came several hundred people turned out.

Someone loaned them a tent to handle the overflow. When it proved too small, they got a bigger tent. The next year they got a still bigger tent, but it was becoming apparent that something more permanent was needed.

When someone mentioned that the strip of land next to the railroad tracks was available, they passed the plate and raised what Holland remembers as "a thousand dollars" in cash and pledges in a single night.

To accommodate the growing crowds in one place, they decided to build a simple shed.

"We didn't have any money," Holland recalls, laughing at the audacity of it all. "But when we told Bill London at the bank in Cornersville we wanted $3,500 to build a shed so we could hold an all-night singing, he never even flinched. He always believed in what we were trying to do."

By then the question of parking arose. Someone mentioned that the adjoining property was available for $5,000, so for Holland and Sanders it was back to the bank.

To pay off the accumulating debt, buckets were passed at each singing. Once the debt was paid, the buckets were quietly packed away.

To accommodate the growing number of motor homes coming to the singings, electricity and water and sewer hookups were put in. The work was done by volunteers.

"If a man ever doubted the providence of God," Holland drawls, "he should have come to one of those early singings. We had live wires strung everywhere. It's a wonder someone wasn't electrocuted."

Or blown sky high. Holland recalls a balky barbecue grill that nearly proved the undoing of the singing.

"Big John's had a barbecue place in Lewisburg and they donated one of these great big commercial grills one year," he drawls. "Nobody had ever used one that big before. I remember the first time they tried to cook on that thing they had flames as high as a man's head shooting up in the air. The ladies doing the cooking had grease all in their hair. It was just awful. The grease was so thick, one guy told me bought a candy bar and it was like trying to pick up a greased frog to pick it up."

In spite of such near disasters -- or perhaps because of them -- one longtime attendee describes the annual singings as "a twice a year homecoming." Over the years at least two weddings and one death have taken place during the singings.

Some years the crowds at the Diana Singing have topped 3,000 people. They have come from virtually every state in the Union and even several foreign nations.

Rita Barton and her husband have been making the trip from Myrtle Beach, S.C., since the late 1970s.

"To me it's like being in heaven," says Barton, who was born in Lewisburg and whose uncle is Knox Ownby of Marshall Auto Supply. "I wouldn't miss it. We've got friends from Florida who have been camped out here for two weeks."

Campers are not charged a fee, but it is they who provide most of the "sweat equity" that goes into preparing the site each year. They power wash the pews and clear the spider webs, bird nests and wasp nests from the shed.

Evelyn Tingle of Ringgold, La., and Daryle Stephenson of Shreveport, La., are attending their second singing together.

"We come for the music and the fellowship," Stephenson says. "It really is such sweet, sweet music. But the fellowship is wonderful too. No one's a stranger here, everybody greets everybody. That's what's so good about it."

It is a sentiment that is heard often among the participants.

"You talk about heavenly," declares Holland, "this is about as close to heaven as you can get on this earth."

If there is a cloud on the horizon it is that many of the most faithful attendees are growing older. Holland worries about passing the baton to new generation.

"What we're trying to do is get some younger people involved to keep it going," he confides. "We don't want to see it stop. We just had a new roof put on the shed."

But as someone who has been there from the beginning, and who has watched over the Diana Singing as a father watches over his child, Holland's faith that things will work out remains unshakeable.

Looking back, he marvels, "This whole thing has been like a dream. When we started out we never dreamed it would become this big. We don't ever want it to stop. We plan for it to go on and on and on."