This year my family and I went, for the third time, to the Spring session of the Southwest Texas Sacred Harp Convention. The convention was held at Bethel Primitive Baptist Church in McMahan, Texas on April 28–29. Here is what happened:
We took what has become our standard route from our home in Atlanta: through Montgomery and Mobile, and through New Orleans, where we stayed for the remainder of the first day. Traveling 16 hours to Lockhart with two young kids is no joke, so splitting the journey in half is good. New Orleans sits almost exactly halfway between Atlanta and Lockhart, TX. It is a lovely city and is populated by Sacred Harp singer Charles Franklin as well as some other folks. But of all the population of New Orleans, it is Charles that we enjoy visiting with the best. He is an excellent guide to New Orleans and seems determined to only take us to restaurants called “Liuzza’s.” Last time it was “Liuzza’s by the Track,” a cajun/creole place. This time it was an Italian place just called “Liuzza’s.”
Charles is a photographer whose series of Sacred Harp images are among the most affecting I have seen. We met him in 1998 at Holly Springs in Bremen, GA where he asked to take a picture of Erica. He did not ask to take a picture of me. He can usually be found at Liberty in Henagar on the first Sunday of July and Saturday before, as well as at State Line, in April. Charles is from Arkansas but has lived in New Orleans for over thirty years. He was one of the many who escaped New Orleans on a boat after Katrina hit. He works on various film and television productions in New Orleans. It was a pleasure to catch up with him. The next morning, after croissants and beignets (which, let’s face it, are basically the same thing as funnel cakes, but with a fancy-sounding name) we hit the road.
After Louisiana comes Texas, and it is a big one. When you cross the state line, a mileage sign informs you that Beaumont is 23 miles away and El Paso is 857 miles. Very arrogant. (Weirdly, this makes Texas only the second largest state we’ve sung in. Alaska actually dwarfs Texas, and the singing in Sitka—a very small city in a very huge state—is lovely. Go ahead and make plans for a trip there in October. You won’t regret it.) Anyway, we made our way to Lockhart, TX, where we were staying with Jeb, Liz, Riley, Jackson, and Lauren Owen. In fact, it was a rushed journey as we had every intention of making it there by 7 pm. Kreuz Market is one of several world-renowned purveyors of BBQ, the likes of which you have probably never had unless you have been to Lockhart or Luling, just down the road. Kreuz (the locals say “Krites”) closes at 8, so we had time to eat a big pile of brisket and sausage before they closed. I think I would drive to Lockhart just for the BBQ. It’s really difficult to express how good it is.
Thankfully, the singing in McMahan (just up the road from Lockhart) is as good as the BBQ (maybe better). The Southwest Texas Convention (no one I asked was able to tell me with much confidence why it was called the Southwest Texas Convention when it isn’t in Southwest Texas at all) is a big, loud Sacred Harp singing. It is hosted in a small-ish Primitive Baptist church on a property that includes such features as an old cemetery, a fellowship hall (which, evidently, is the original old church), some mesquite trees which grow as much horizontally as vertically (thus providing an excellent natural bench for young kids), and perhaps the largest shelter/tabernacle for dinner on the grounds that I have ever seen. Also, it is always fantastically windy and warm. You’d better hold onto your plate cause you’re liable to lose it to the wind. The grounds are as lovely and inviting as any church we sing at. The church itself is able to accommodate about 200 folks and when we started singing, it’s almost shocking how powerful the sound is. This convention has become a well-attended singing, drawing visitors from hither and yonder. For example, in the three years I have visited the Southwest Texas Convention, it has consistently drawn a strong contingent of singers from Sand Mountain, AL and Hoboken, GA. This year, there was an especially strong Wootten presence from Sand Mountain, AL.
Now, the Southwest Texas Convention is a Cooper book singing, but the convention feels like a cross between a Denson and Cooper book singing. On one hand the Cooper book is the book we sang from, but the Texas singers seem to favor the songs that Denson book singers think of as “Denson book songs” but which they themselves think of, quite rightly, as “Sacred Harp songs.” In other words, comparatively few gospel-type songs were led, and those who did lead them were usually Denson book singers who seem to feel the need to lead distinctively “Cooper book songs” when they are at a Cooper book singing (I am no exception). In other words, it is precisely the Denson book singers who skew the song choices toward more Gospel-flavored material. Nevertheless, the Southwest Texas Convention is decidedly oriented toward dispersed harmony, whether in the form of those songs that it shares with the Denson book or else those songs that would fit almost seamlessly in the Denson book.
Another noteworthy quality of the Southwest Texas Convention is the singers themselves. In general, I would say that a Sacred Harp singer does not need to have a strong, polished voice. It is as a whole class of singers that our voices join in such a way that the whole becomes vastly more than the sum of its parts. This is not necessarily the case at the Southwest Texas Convention. Without wishing to generalize, these folks, even individually, can flat-out sing. Their voices just sound good. Not in any showy way—they just sing round honest tones, without evident vibrato. They aren’t like the rest of us who get by OK because we’re in a big group. They are great singers (apart from that guy Jeb, whose last name I will not mention) and it is a pleasure to sing with them.
Since I first attended the Southwest Texas Convention, I have often thought that as a convention and as a singing community, it is like a Cooper book version of the singing convention at Liberty Baptist Church in Henagar, AL which is rightly famous as one of the really outstanding large singings in the country. Each community is strongly associated with two or three prominent families who have been each singings’ most visible supporters (where there are a preponderance of Iveys and Woottens at Liberty and Sand Mountain generally, there are Owens and Rogans at the Southwest Texas Convention.) Connected to this is the fact that both on Sand Mountain and in McMahan/Lockhart, TX there is this other sign of family involvement: children. These families among the very few traditional singing families whose children have actually continued the tradition of Sacred Harp singing, and from the looks of things, seem likely to persist. In both Sand Mountain and McMahan/Lockhart, there are as many as four generations of family singers represented. This is heartening but is a troubling reminder of other regions on the Sacred Harp map which have uncertain futures. On both days there were packs of kids running around during breaks and in the house for the singing. Naturally, our kids, Anna (7) and Eli (4) had a blast.
Also like Henagar is the amazing dinner on the grounds. Naturally, in Texas, brisket and sausages from the local BBQ joints are featured prominently. Unlike Henagar, they don’t know how to make sweet tea in McMahan, so watch out! Dinner is spread on a long set of tables in the old church that was replaced by the newer structure on the property. This old white church house is now used as a fellowship hall and is just beautiful. It has old schoolhouse globe lighting and they pipe the sound in from the singing through the old speakers that are mounted on the wall so the ladies laying out the food can hear. And the food was great—one of the highlights of the day.
The final similarity to singing in Henagar that I’ll mention is that the Southwest Texas Convention hosts a large social at one of the schools in Lockhart on Saturday night. It is an occasion to catch up with folks that one only had time to wave to from across the hall, and to eat hamburgers and hotdogs (if you hadn’t already snuck off to Smitty’s Market to get some more of that fine brisket and sausage, as we had). A distinctive feature of the social is that by the time it starts to get dark outside, copies of a book called Harp of Ages get distributed and we get to sing again, this time from a little soft cover book that collects songs we know from The Sacred Harp as well as hymns and gospel songs. Everyone was made to feel welcome and happy to be there.
One of the real pleasures of this singing was visiting with Lorraine Miles McFarland, known by many as “that little girl on the cover of [our Sacred Harp documentary] Awake, My Soul.” You can learn more about her in Chloe Webb’s story elsewhere in this issue, but suffice it to say, she is everything you had hoped she would be, and a good deal less stern than you might think. She is friendly, charming, and for being in her late 80s, is remarkably active, as well as possessing a sharp memory. She sat next to our Anna, who is the same age that Lorraine was when her photo was taken by George Pullen Jackson at the Interstate Sacred Harp Convention in 1931 in Mineral Wells, TX. They got along famously, and within a short time decided that they are now best friends. They have since begun a written correspondence.
Despite not having gone to singings since the 1930s, Lorraine has a strong memory of the songs she used to sing, even recalling the notes of many of them (they sang out of the James revision of the Original Sacred Harp when she was little). She is, after all, one of the very few students of “Uncle” Tom Denson’s singing schools still alive. We marvel with one another about the fact that a photo taken 80+ years ago has brought our family and her together and we have become fast friends. At the social, Chloe Webb gave a presentation about Lorraine’s very remarkable life. Lorraine seemed embarrassed by the attention, but I think she enjoyed reflecting on her life in this way.
As is usual, the singing on Sunday was even better than Saturday. Naturally, on our way to the singing, we picked up 25 sausages from Smitty’s and snuck them in the freezer in the fellowship hall till the end of the day. We spent the night in Austin, which is only about 30 minutes from Lockhart, and is the home of such things as tacos and tamales. The next day we headed back east (by the way, does anyone say “out east” and “back west”?), nor did we neglect to pay New Orleans a visit that night.
An altogether edifying and enjoyable trip. We can’t wait for next year.
Photographs by Matt Hinton.