Throughout much of the twentieth century, African Americans in Texas practiced their own distinctive style of sacred harp music. How Blacks in East Texas originally came to sing sacred harp is not fully documented. It is known, however, that many settlers in the eastern part of the state who came from Alabama and Georgia brought their sacred harp songbooks with them. Some of these settlers were also slave owners, therefore, possibly some of the slaves may have learned to sing sacred harp from their White masters. It is also possible that after emancipation, freemen, having first heard the music sung by Whites, then learned to sing it independently. However the sacred harp singing was handed down, it was not an exact duplicate as their Anglo counterparts. The Black singers developed many practices, in style and procedure, that made the singings unique to their own culture.
Regarding Black sacred harp singing in the early to mid-twentieth century, there were two main annual conventions in East Texas: the Rusk County Convention and the Panola County Convention. Both conventions used the Cooper edition of Benjamin Franklin White’s songbook, The Sacred Harp, rather than J. Jackson’s The Colored Sacred Harp. Both conventions met during the summer months and moved from one rural community to another. The Rusk County Convention, for example, held singings in Mayflower, Springfield, Chapel Hill, and Waters Chapel. Singings in the Panola County Convention included the towns of Holland’s Quarters and Beckville. Typically, these singings would be held in country churches located in the backwoods off unpaved, tree-shaded roads.
Some noticeable differences existed in the way that African-American singers carried on the sacred harp musical tradition from the practices of White singers. At a Black sacred harp singing, there was no “Arranging Committee” to call the song leaders. Instead, the leaders were called by the convention clerk with whom the leaders were required to “enroll” before the start of the singing. Interested leaders could enroll by paying a requisite fee, and anyone, not just perspective song leaders, who had the required enrollment fee could sign up with the clerk and both designate their own choice of song leader as well as their choice of song. The duration of the singing then depended on the number of leaders enrolled. When everyone that was enrolled had his or her turn, that session of the singing was over. Consequently, the event might last only thirty minutes or long into the night depending on how many leaders had enrolled.
Black singers generally took considerable time pitching the song; it would not be unusual to key a given song four or five times before settling on the key that was “just right.” Generally, the songs were sung at a much higher pitch than the songs performed at White singings. In the African-American sacred harp tradition, there was no option about singing the notes; it was mandatory. If the chorus had a repeat, observance of that repeat was expected for the notes and for each and every verse. In regard to mood, if the song was particularly sentimental, it would not be unusual to sing the chorus softly the last time around. Songs were sung at a much slower tempo.
In the late 1970s attendance at the Black sacred harp singings had declined as evidenced by the smaller number of song leaders. By the early 2000s the all-Black singings had ceased. The demise of sacred harp singing among African Americans in East Texas represented the loss of a distinctive singing tradition. Characteristics of the Black style of singing that were unique to their culture and that greatly enriched this old musical art form are now lost.