EAST TEXAS SACRED HARP SINGING CONVENTION
EAST TEXAS SACRED HARP SINGING CONVENTION. In 1855 East Texans formed the East Texas Musical Convention. That convention, now commonly known as the East Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention, is the oldest known singing convention in Texas and the second oldest active Sacred Harp Convention in the United States. It is an annual gathering of vocalists who sing a cappella from The Sacred Harp tunebook. Its purpose is to advance the cause of sacred harp music, based on a belief that this music is "essential to the prosperity of the church, and the social well-being of the rising generation." In its early days, the convention usually met for three or four days in locations determined by invitation. The convention "has held its annual sessions regularly except three or four years during the war." After the Civil War, a flurry of musical activity created numerous conventions across East Texas—including Angelina Musical Convention, Central Texas Musical Convention, Cherokee Musical Convention, and Lafayette Musical Convention.
The East Texas Convention was modeled after the now defunct Southern Musical Convention established in Georgia in 1845 by Benjamin Franklin White. The East Texas Convention organizers adopted The Sacred Harp tunebook at the start and have used it and its revisions to the present. Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King published the tunebook titled The Sacred Harp in 1844. White and King’s Sacred Harp is rooted in the four-shape shape note singing school tradition and incorporated the four shapes originally used in a book called The Easy Instructor (1801) by William Smith and William Little. "Fa" is represented as a triangle, "sol" as a circle or oval, "la" as a square or rectangle, and "mi" as a diamond.
Westward migration brought The Sacred Harp to East Texas. Texas was a “Promised Land of uncounted thousands of rural southerners after the Civil War." Several leading lights of Sacred Harp and the Southern and Chattahoochee Musical conventions of Georgia moved to East Texas —e.g. Oliver Bradfield, Reuben E. Brown, M. Mark Wynne, David P. White, J. T. White, Elias L. King, Jesse M. Moseley, Sarah Lancaster Hagler, John S. Terry, M. H. Turner, and William L. Williams. Apparently none of them were in East Texas in 1855. Persons involved in the organization are mostly unknown, but some involved in the East Texas Musical Convention at an early date were Thomas J. Allison, William Russell Adams, W. W. Crawford, Robert F. Echols, James Pendleton Holloway, John T. Holloway, Frank Manuel, Thomas Myrick, and J. R. White. Mathew Mark Wynne carries the distinction of serving as an officer in the two oldest surviving Sacred Harp Conventions—the East Texas Convention and the Chattahoochee Musical Convention of Georgia (organized in 1852).
Sacred Harp singers always sing without instrumental accompaniment. The singers are arranged in a "hollow square"—chairs or pews are set up in a square facing one another with an opening in the middle. Each side of the square is assigned to one of the four harmony parts—treble, alto, tenor, and bass. The treble and tenor sections usually include men and women singing an octave apart. Participants take turns in leading. The leaders are called by an arranging committee from those who register and mark on their registration cards a desire to lead. The leader selects a song from the book and announces its page number. Next a designated person sings the starting notes without reference to any instrument or standard pitch. The singers sound the opening notes of their own parts, then the song begins with "singing the notes"—singing through the tune using the syllables fa, sol, la, and mi. Following the notes the song is sung by the words or poetry.
The East Texas Convention has a continuous history from 1868, the earliest year notated in its minutes. In its early years it was generally considered a forum of Christian worship. Today many are also attracted to its historical and folk music aspects.
Originally confined to the southern United States, the national "discovery" of Sacred Harp singing around 1976 led to its spread into the north and west, and eventually even to foreign countries. The East Texas Convention, whose strength had greatly diminished after World War II, benefited from this discovery and has grown into an event that draws visitors from many parts of the United States. Throughout its history, the convention has convened in six East Texas counties: Gregg, Harrison, Panola, Rusk, Smith and Upshur. Early conventions often lasted up to four days and reportedly drew crowds in the thousands. The convention presently meets for two days in Henderson, Texas, on the weekend of the second Sunday in August. Attendance ranges between 300 to 500 people, with an average of 80 leaders. The current "textbook" of the convention is The Revised Sacred Harp (2006 Edition), first revised by W. M. Cooper and others in 1902.
Buell E. Cobb, Jr., The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1978). George Pullen Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933). Aldine S. Kieffer, ed., The Musical Million and Fireside Friend, Vol. XI (1880). Kiri Miller, ed., The Chattahoochie Musical Convention, 1852–2002: A Sacred Harp Historical Sourcebook (Carollton, Georgia: Sacred Harp Museum, 2002). R. L. Vaughn, comp., Approaching 150: A Brief History of the East Texas Musical Convention (Mount Enterprise, Texas: Waymark Publications, 2005).