Every year for the past 163 years a gathering takes place in Henderson performing one of the great Southern church traditions — singing school.
It’s a bit different than how it sounds, as Robert Vaughn, who helps organize the East Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention in Henderson, said it’s a congregational singing class, consisting of a four-part harmony arranged in a hollow square. The four parts face each other with the song leader standing in the middle of the hollow square.
“We sing old hymns, folk songs, and some newly written songs, just in the old style,” noted Mr. Vaughn. “It is a living tradition.”
The singing school held in Henderson is the second oldest in the United States, with an annual meeting in Georgia the only one considered older. For those unfamiliar with the singing tradition, this is early American music preserved through the traditional singing schools for more than 200 years. The songs use shaped notes which correspond to the “do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do.” When the song is sung, the notes are sung first, then followed by the words, all a capella.
At times more than 150 people will face off in their various positions in their square and sing at each other. It is a feast for the ears to hear the old hymns come to life.
The music comes from the Sacred Harp, originally written in 1844 with a lot of hymn tunes and fugue tunes and some gospel songs.
“It’s a good variety of tunes,” Mr. Vaughn said. “There’s a lot of styles of music, even some camp meeting tunes.”
Over the years the Sacred Harp has been revised adding new tunes here and there, but by and large it’s much the same as it originally appeared in 1844. The songs in the books are listed by the name of the tune, not the lyrics, so a traditional hymn like Amazing Grace will have a different name in the Sacred Harp.
The singing school began in Henderson in 1855 and has met every year since. It originally was hosted by churches throughout the Henderson area. Churches hosted the convention up until the 1950s when they decided to hold it at a more permanent location, a larger location to be able to hold all the outside visitors coming to hear the music, and take part if they wish. A historical marker, honoring the tradition of Sacred Harp in Henderson stands at the Depot Museum in Henderson. They also have a copy of the Sacred Harp song book for those wanting to get a closer look.
These days the Sacred Harp Convention is held at the Henderson Civic Center. This year’s event is set for August 12 and 13. Saturday’s singing runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and on Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
To learn more about the East Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention, visit www.texasfasola.org.