(Click on photographs for full-size images)
A few Saturdays ago I attended the 27th Annual Heritage Day Festival in Bethel Virginia at the Church of the Brethren’s Camp Bethel Retreat and Conference Center. Local Church of the Brethren congregations set up booths at the camp, selling food, crafts and other items to raise money for the camp’s yearly operating expenses.
I went not with fundraising in mind, but because I love church suppers, fundraisers and festivals of any and all kinds. They feel like one of the last remaining links to the past, or specifically, my past, my childhood. My life on Earth before the internet and big box retailing turned the mysterious and the vernacular into the bland landscape that seeps into America via the 4 lane highway system. People at church suppers still talk to people, still ask “how is your mother doing?” And the foodways, though fading fast, are links to the volunteers’ mothers and grandmothers (chocolate chess pie and cornbread and snap beans). I feel so happy amongst these vestiges of local community, and my children need to see them before they are gone forever.
Walking the fundraising booths I ate pinto beans cooked in a dutch oven, fried apple pies dusted with sugar made while I waited, apple butter stewed in a copper kettle all the night before. My children ate candy corn and popcorn, and fished for trout in the camp clear water spring.
At one area in the heritage day festival men and women were not selling food, but playing instruments. A guitar case was laid open for donations to the camp. The musicians, led in song by a woman playing the autoharp, were alternating between bluegrass and gospel songs popular in the Blue Ridge mountains. Festival-goers walked by, listening on their way to the next booth, or stopping to give a longer listen.
I circled around them, making photographs and listening. I started to walk on, but stopped to listen to a man (seen in the first photograph, his head bowed, hands in pockets, a light jacket on over a dark v-neck sweater) who addressed the musicians just as they finished up a song to light applause.
The man apologized for interrupting, and asked if the group knew the song “Suppertime.” He went on to say that if they could play that song for him he would make a donation in the guitar case, and also he would cry the whole time.
That last part struck me as strange. It did not seem to be a time to try to be funny when asking a group of musicians whom did not appear to be taking requests to play a certain song, now.
The musicians all nodded, and the woman responded they would be more than happy to play “Suppertime.”
The song “Suppertime,” written in 1950 by Ira Stanphill and popularized by country and western singers Jim Reeves and Johnny Cash, is my favorite type of gospel song, employing an ordinary everyday action or event as a stand-in for deeper, Gospel meaning. In the song a narrator bemoans the loss of the bygone days when his mother would call him from the farm fields, calling, “Its suppertime.” Later in the song the listener learns the narrator has had family already called home, and looks forward to the day all of God’s children are called home to join him at the table. The song ends with the lyrics,
“Come home, come home, its suppertime. The shadows lengthen fast. Come home, come home, its suppertime. We’re going home at last.”
As the musicians played and the singer drew out the lamenting lyrics I quickly realized the man held true to his word. He held his head down in reverence, as you see in the picture, and openly wept, tears welling up in his ruddy face. He quietly cried during the entire song. At the songs end, waiting until after the applause, the gentleman raised his head, smiled, and told the group “Thank you.”