|A historical marker in the grove commemorates the initial event held in 1921.|
The event, begun in 1921 in a tobacco warehouse, takes place at the Singing Grove in downtown Benson, which includes a 54-acre historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s easy to appreciate live music in such a picturesque setting where the main stage is in the center of the oak-filled town park, and tall, old trees provide abundant shade.
|Some spectators set up their own chairs in the grove.|
Held on the weekend of the fourth Sunday in June, the Benson Sing is the oldest and largest gospel sing in the United States. One of the oldest annual music shows in the country, it is even four years older than the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. For the inaugural event 97 years ago, two choirs performed for a crowd of 200 on that day.
|Trophies on the center shelf of the stage await the winners as a quartet performs.|
The Sing has since expanded to three days, and two local radio stations broadcast live during the competition. The popularity of the convention has waned from its peak in the 1940s and 1950s when 10,000 spectators were common. However, its format is very attractive: the Sing is free for both contestants and spectators. Area businesses underwrite all expenses and sponsor the trophies.
|Although the Sing encourages first-time entrants, several groups are semiprofessionals who sell CDs of their award-winning gospel songs at display tents in the grove.|
Trophies are won by participants who compete in several categories, which may change from year to year depending on the number of entrants. The larger the ensemble, the more I appreciated its singing. Because solo acts are not permitted, the smallest group is a duet. Next are trios and quartets. A family group includes five or more members related to each other. A special category is a junior group; its members must be younger than 17. The largest group is an adult church choir. Each group sings no longer than five minutes, and the winner in each category takes home a trophy.
|A church choir is the largest competitive category of the convention.|
The opening night, which has no competition, features a “singspiration,” a 30-minute performance by six professional ensembles each. On the second night, a nationally acclaimed ensemble called the host group gives a two-hour concert after an opening act.
|A sign-up board sets the order for an informal "round-robin" session.|
On Saturday and Sunday, singers compete in categories for trophies. The highest scoring groups that compete on both days (they must sing a different song each day) are eligible for the overall grand champion and consolidation trophy. The grand champion is typically a quartet from within North Carolina, although trios have also been successful and the past winner was from Florida.
|A bluegrass category was added in 2017 to the Benson Sing.|
When I arrived on Saturday morning, a session of non-competitive singing, known as “round-robin,” was underway. This time is informal and gives the groups an opportunity to become familiar with the stage and setting before the actual competition begins. As spectators come and go, they casually chat with each other and greet musicians who are not singing.