Fifth Sunday Singing in Old Chicora, Florida

Bethehem Primitive Baptist Church is the site of the 5th Sunday singing in Old Chicora, FL. Photograph by Peggy A. Bulger, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/119633.

Bethehem Primitive Baptist Church is the site of the 5th Sunday singing in Old Chicora, FL. Photograph by Peggy A. Bulger, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/119633.

Old Chicora, located approximately 40 miles southeast of Tampa, FL, on the far eastern edge of Hillsborough County, has been home to Sacred Harp singing since the late 1800s. Bethlehem Primitive Baptist Church has been the site since the early 1920s, hosting singing every fifth Sunday from 10:00 am to 2:30 pm, with dinner on the grounds at noon. Most years have four months with five Sundays, but this year we were fortunate to have five.

The congregation was incorporated in 1871, but singings weren’t held in the church until May 1924. The earliest singers met in homes, and later at the Johnson School about 2 miles away from the present site. (The schoolhouse is no longer standing.) The first church building was constructed of logs. (One singer recalls hat racks on the walls, in an era when men wore hats and suits to most public events.) The present concrete-block structure was constructed in 1960.

In years past, Sacred Harp singings were also held in nearby areas of Central Florida, including Vero Beach and Winter Garden. The latter was home to the Florida State Convention before it moved to its current home in Panama City.

As with any activity in Florida, attendance varies with the season. In recent years, attendance in winter has been as high as 45, and attendance in the off-season averages 20 to 25. We’ve been fortunate to have the occasional participation of singers from the Tallahassee and Gainesville (Micanopy) areas as well as Georgia.

This past April, I was among 20 or so singers at Bethlehem. Though our group wasn’t large, we had a good day of strong singing. As usual, I led “Exhortation” (p. 171 in both The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition and the Cooper book). When leading this song at Bethlehem—a Cooper book singing—I bring printouts from the 1991 Edition, which has two verses (Cooper has only one). In my early days singing here, this song was unknown to most of the group—but it is now a well-known part of our repertoire.

I discovered the Old Chicora group through fasola.org soon after purchasing a second home in the Sarasota area in 2004. For several years, while working in New York City (my introduction to Sacred Harp), I planned regular Florida “mini-vacations” to coincide with the fifth-Sunday singings. Now actively retired, I frequently travel to sing wherever and whenever the Spirit leads (and finances allow), but have a special bond with Bethlehem.

The late M. Lane Albritton, moderator (for many years) of the Bethlehem singing, leading in August 1979. Photograph by Peggy A. Bulger, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/119861.

The late M. Lane Albritton, moderator (for many years) of the Bethlehem singing, leading in August 1979. Photograph by Peggy A. Bulger, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/119861.

Many of the Bethlehem singers have roots in Sacred Harp singing in the area going back several generations. Moderator Janice Clenney has attended singings for over 70 years, first as a small child accompanying her parents. Her maternal grandfather Jesse Arthur Albritton sang Sacred Harp. When Jesse’s daughter Ella Mae (Janice’s mother) married Uriel Benton, Jesse requested that his new son-in-law bring Ella Mae back for singings, and Uriel did so faithfully.

Janice’s earliest Sacred Harp memories are of playing with her dolls on the floor near her family while they sang. When she heard “Send A Blessing” (p. 369), she knew it was time for dinner. (The tradition of singing “Send A Blessing” before breaking for the meal continues today.) Janice’s husband Jeril accompanies her to the singings, and their daughters and granddaughters are often with them.

Ernestine Albritton Mann Stalvey, age 90, has also been singing Sacred Harp in Bethlehem since she was a small child accompanying her parents. Her father, Jefferson F. Albritton, was Jesse Arthur ’s brother. Ernestine’s son Terry Mann and daughter Claudia McCormick now bring their mother to the singings, sometimes with Claudia’s daughters.

The late Iris Allbriton Yarbrough, leading at a Bethlehem singing in August 1979. Photograph by Peggy A. Bulger, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/119635.

The late Iris Albritton Yarbrough, leading at a Bethlehem singing in August 1979. Photograph by Peggy A. Bulger, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/119635.

Eileen Moody and LeeAnn Aycock are sisters who sing at Bethlehem. Their late mother, Iris Albritton Yarbrough, shown leading in 1979 in the attached photo, was Janice Clenney’s aunt.

Joining this stalwart supporters of Sacred Harp singing in our area this April were some singers. Among these was Kathryn Keller, who was introduced to Sacred Harp in a class at a junior college in the Gainesville area. Her teacher was Pat Morse, moderator of the Micanopy Sacred Harp group. James Kushner, also in attendance, was introduced to Sacred Harp while in school in Southern California, and has been singing with Central Florida groups since the late 1990s. We were also joined by some first-time visitors. Among these were two retired couples; one couple rides their motorcycles all over the country (and had ridden them to the singing that day)!

A meaningful part of every Bethlehem singing—in addition to the music and fellowship—is dinner on the grounds. To cover the table, the Clenneys bring tablecloths made from feed sacks that have been in the family for generations. These tablecloths are made from bright cotton prints, large squares stitched together and laid end to end. Some women remember, as children, wearing dresses their mothers sewed from feed sacks. (Younger readers may not be familiar with the bright, colorfully patterned, high-quality cotton material that feed sacks were made of back in the day.)

The Central Florida fifth-Sunday singing warmly welcomes singers from near and far to join us. But our winters are especially inviting to northerners, midwesterners, northeasterners (etc.) tired of digging out of snowdrifts and shivering in below-zero temperatures.

About Mary Ellen Schrock

Mary Ellen Schrock began singing Sacred Harp in New York City. She first encountered the Old Chicora group in 2004 after purchasing a second home in the area. Now actively retired, she sings wherever and whenever she can.
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7 Responses to Fifth Sunday Singing in Old Chicora, Florida

  1. Carolyn R. Gisel says:

    I can just hear the singing as I read this review!!!! I’m proud to say “I know this gal.” Very interesting & well-done!!!

    Carolyn

  2. Kristin says:

    I can see all my aunts and my mom, and many of my cousins too, participating in such an activity, and having a great time doing so. The author just happens to be one of my aunts… Sounds like something I may need to attend once I get a chance to visit Florida.

  3. Chloe Webb says:

    A very lively report! The photo of Iris Yarbrough depicts one of the most joyful singers I’ve ever seen. How I wish I could have known her and sung with her!

  4. Erin says:

    So, is this still going on today? I am wanting to start up a Sacred Harp group in Polk County, but if I can attend a singing with an already existing group, it would be so wonderful! Hope anyone could respond, and thanks!!!

  5. Steve Isaac says:

    I got “bitten by the bug” of the gracious and glorious sound of Sacred Harp singing three or four years ago. I had never heard of this music before the movie Cold Mountain. I’ve always wanted to go to a singing and now I’m in Florida for a few weeks as I travel North America looking for opportunities to minister in song, word, and deed. Can anyone suggest a good source to find upcoming singings, or recommend big singings coming up not within a couple hundred miles from where I am presently staying, in Lakeland, Florida? I did find the website mentioned in this post, but I don’t really understanding terminology and am unsure whether the public is welcome.

    • Two great resources for finding upcoming singings are the annual and regular local singing directories hosted by Warren Steel.

      Given your location in Lakeland, Florida and the timing of your visit, in addition to the wonderful but relatively small upcoming singing at Old Chicora, you may wish to travel to the annual all-day singing in Hoboken, Georgia on March 15 or to the Georgia State Convention in Carrollton, Georgia on March 21–22. Both are listed in the March section of the annual singing directory.

      You would be most welcome to attend these or any other Sacred Harp singings. All welcome the public and are free of charge to attend.

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