The 1930 Texas Sacred Harp Convention

by George Pullen Jackson

condensed from White Spirituals in Southern Uplands p114-120 by Keith Willard
I arrived in Mineral Wells, Texas, toward the end of the Great Drought of 1930. The clerk of the sky-scraping Baker Hotel in the Lone Star State's favorite spa could not direct me to the Interstate Sacred harp Convention. He knew nothing of it. He was able, however, to direct me to the municipal convention hall.

The Friday morning session was just starting with a song as I entered.After the song the chaplain read from the scriptures, offered a prayer, and then singing, nothing but singing, filled the forenoon from nine to twelve excepting for a short recess in the middle.

I observed the singers. There were about two hundred of them, men, women, and children. They were all country folk, of course, though some of them lived, as I learned, in Texas cities. They were the same type, precisely, that I had met in many other Sacred Harp conventions. This was evident from their work-browned faces and their absence of "style". Calluses were much in evident. If they were to be dubbed "poor whites" the term should be used to signify those people who have yet turned from their ancient attitudes toward lifes values and adopted the current commercially standardized ones. They had not been willing to exchange their birthright of singing for the meager mess of "listening" pottage.

The singers occupied the level floor space of the auditorium, leaving the tiers of seats, rising to both sides, for the sparsely assembled listeners. These listeners were also country people. The singers sat in folding chairs on four sides of a rectangular open space where the leader stood. The men and women tenors were in from of the leader, the men and women trebles at his left, the women altos behind him, and the basses at his right. Each singer had a copy of the big Sacred Harp on his lap. Some of these were of the 1930 printing. But here and there I saw yellowed copies of an edition that had appeared two generations ago, heirlooms that were brought along, mayhap, when the singers' forebears moved into the new state of Texas. But this difference in edition brought no confusion, for the song on any given page was the same for all printings of this 86-year-old survival in musical culture.

The president, W.H. Coston of Dallas, announced the "brother" who was to "sing". (In Alabama he "led" a lesson. In Harmonia Sacra singings of the Shenandoah Valley he "entertained us"). He called the page of his song and then "keyed" the tune by singing its tonic and other opening tones without the help of even a tuning fork. "Faw, law, sol!" The singers of all four parts got their pitch instantly and, after the one deliberate chord with which all the Sacred Harp songs begin, the whole chorus was on its way singing the song once through by "notes" only. The came the words, one to three stanzas. Some leaders stood still. But most of them walked around the open space giving the entrance cues--in the often-sung "fuging" songs--successively to the different sections. The leader's beat was with both arms, for he (or she) was seldom encumbered with a book; and his arm movements were simply down and up. The songs seldom demanded anything else, and if they did it made no difference. The response of the singers was vigorous and rhythmically precise, for they, making little use of the book, kept their eyes on the leader and beat time also, always with one arm or merely the hand., And if that hand held a fan, it was given a little twist half a revolution, each time it came up. The reading ability of these singers was nothing short of astounding.

Following a demonstration of several child leaders a song was started: If a mother wants to go, Why don't she come along? I belong to this band Hallelujah! One of those exhortational folk-spirituals of infectious tune, compelling march movement, and a never-ending series of verses (made by substituting "father" "brother," "sister," etc) known to all. At first the happy children received merely a warm handshake and pat on the shoulder from the men and a kiss from the women. But by degrees the wave of emotion rose, swept on by this song and then by another one spliced on, and by the really parental joy in those children who had so beautifully proved that they could carry on their fathers' and mothers' beloved art--until the warm congratulatory reception became a veritable and ardent love feast. The little ones were smothered with kisses and hugs. Tears streamed down the cheeks of young and old. And one patriarchal fat man, looking on, crying, laughing, sweating, and fanning, shouted intermittently.

I look upon the whole demonstration, and especially upon the shouting, as something significant. In itself the "shout" was nothing more nor less than the short staccato whoop or yell or yip that is still heard widely in uncowed environments. But here it told me that emotion, raised to the highest pitch, was venting itself. The group as a whole got its catharsis in songs and tears. The old man, who filled up like the rest but had ceased singing, blew off in shouts. And if we are to agree with the psychologists as to the "immorality" resulting from the excitation and non-satisfaction of the emotions, then those Sacred Harp singers were engaged in one of the most purely moral pursuits. Their emotional catharsis was one hundred per cent. On the one hand, inhibition, the necessary evil of civilization; on the other, complete release, the blessing of this music-making and the prime reason, perhaps, for its longevity; a blessing which obviously cannot descend upon those ominously great masses of mere hearers of music.

If these people were not happy, in the best and fullest meaning of the word, then I have never seen human happiness. It is no coincidence that the Sacred Harpers' mental picture of heaven is, as it is expressed repeatedly in their songs and as one hears them declare in conversation, prayer, and convention speeches, that of a place where they will meet again those beloved singers who have gone before, and sing again with them endlessly.