Honoring Tradition and Building Community at the First National Convention

This essay is part of the online exhibit, The First National Sacred Harp Convention.

In 1980, Hugh McGraw, then Executive Secretary of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, launched a new Sacred Harp convention to gather singers from around the entire country in a single, celebratory event. The first National Sacred Harp Convention, four days of singing at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, attracted hundreds of participants, including representatives from nearly every community of singers. The class voted to make the National Convention an annual event, and it still meets on the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday before the third Sunday each June in Birmingham. The “National,” as most singers call it, is still among the largest annual singings, though it follows the same general format of any other convention. The first National Convention, however, was a remarkable exception. More than just an outsized singing, it brought together diverse singing communities in a unique program that reaffirmed the importance of tradition while exploring new possibilities for the rapidly expanding world of Sacred Harp.

Hugh McGraw leads the class.

Hugh McGraw leads the class.

By 1980, it was clear that the future of Sacred Harp singing was going to be very different from its past. While singings in the music’s traditional homeland of Georgia, Alabama, and a few other southern states had been falling off precipitously, Sacred Harp had sprung up in areas of the country where it had never previously had a foothold. The New England Convention, which was organized in 1976, had demonstrated the possibility of transplanting Sacred Harp beyond its ordinary borders, as a continuation of traditional practice, rather than as an imitation or revival. Hugh McGraw credits Maxine Aaron, a granddaughter of the legendary singing-school teacher, T. J. Denson, with originating the idea for a nationwide singing. McGraw enthusiastically took up the idea, recognizing that it would be a powerful means of integrating new and old singing communities and bringing geographically distant groups closer to the heart of the tradition.

set2_national 03

The convention met on the stage of Samford’s Leslie Stephen Wright Fine Arts Center in Birmingham, Alabama, while listeners sat in the audience.

Initially, McGraw envisioned a moving convention that would travel from one college campus to another. This idea reflects the state of Sacred Harp singing in the period—university music departments had been some of the most promising sites for establishing singing communities outside the South. With this plan in mind, McGraw worked with Claude H. Rhea of Samford University, Dan Patterson at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and William J. Reynolds, at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Fort Worth, Texas, to help organize the National Convention; they anticipated that the singing would travel to each of their institutions in succeeding years. As it turned out, however, visitors from afar enjoined the organizers to keep the singing in the South—much of the appeal of the convention was the opportunity to travel to the homeland of Sacred Harp and learn from traditional singers. Accordingly, Samford University agreed to host the singing again for several subsequent years, and though it has moved to several venues around the city, the National Convention never left Birmingham.


Dan Patterson’s letter to Hugh McGraw on the order of a nineteenth-century convention.
View the entire letter (PDF).

Though the convention was in many ways a response to the new direction that Sacred Harp was taking in the present, its organizers also wanted to make it a commemoration of the tradition’s history. Unlike any other modern singing, the first National Convention was arranged to reflect nineteenth and early-twentieth century practices that had long since disappeared. Hugh McGraw wrote to Dan Patterson, a historian of American music, to ask about the format of early singing conventions, and then organized the National Convention around that model. As McGraw brought in elements from historical practice, though, he adapted them to accommodate contemporary needs. Like many nineteenth century singings, the National met for four days, twice as long as typical conventions by 1980. Further, as the minutes note, “Proceedings for the first day were patterned after a singing in 1844. Only men were called to lead and they were allowed to lead for twenty minutes.” The leaders that day included esteemed elderly singers—they “kept the leading to the very best teachers they had present,” as Dan Patterson described nineteenth-century singings in his letter to McGraw. The day began with perhaps the most venerable living patriarch of Sacred Harp, Bob Denson, leading “Ragan” (p. 176t in The Sacred Harp), “Cheves” (p. 432), “Providence” (p. 298), “New Hope” (p. 316), “New Bethel” (p. 395), and “Living Streams” (p. 558).

The special printing of the 1971 edition for the National Convention.

The special printing of the 1971 edition created for the National Convention.

The theme of linking history to the present was so important that McGraw and the Sacred Harp Publishing Company even arranged for a special printing of the Sacred Harp songbook with a facsimile cover reproduced from an early edition, surrounded by a marbled pattern evoking a nineteenth-century aesthetic.

Three of the Ladies' Day officers: Joyce Walton, Charlene Wallace, and Carlene Griffin.

Three of the Ladies’ Day officers:
Joyce Walton, Charlene Wallace, and Carlene Griffin.

While history was important to the organizers of the National Convention, they also found ways to accommodate contemporary practice. While only men led on the first two days, Saturday was designated Ladies Day. Not only were all the leaders that day women, but all of the officers, even the chaplain, were female. Ruth Brown, of Oxford, Alabama, served as president. Additional officers included singers from Alabama, Georgia, and Texas. Hugh McGraw and Charlene Wallace remember Ladies’ Day as a meaningful celebration of the women of Sacred Harp—both, however, wisely declined to go on record with their opinions about which day’s singing sounded best!

Many singers’ fondest memories of the first National Convention center on a number of unique events that were interspersed throughout the singing. During the course of the convention, singers paused for several serious moments of celebration and reflection: two of B. F. White’s descendants spoke about their family history, a film of the 1978 session of the United Convention was screened, and the class recognized the nine living composers of Sacred Harp songs present, as well as Maxine Aaron, who had first proposed the idea for the National Convention. Letters and telegrams from singers who were unable to attend were read, and a representative from the mayor’s office presented Hugh McGraw with a key to the City of Birmingham. The convention was also interrupted by some less serious proceedings.

"Cousin Daisy Mae"

“Cousin Daisy Mae”

On Ladies Day, a quartette featuring Joyce Walton, Beverley Coates, Joan Peppler, and Charlene Wallace performed six songs, accompanied on several by Martha Woodard playing the banjo. The minutes cryptically note that “Cousin Daisy Mae paid a visit,” referring to a brief comedic interlude by Susan Harcrow, which, by all accounts, was nothing if not memorable. Whether solemn or lighthearted, all of these moments helped serve the convention’s goal of fostering fellowship among the entire world of Sacred Harp.

Dewey Williams and Hugh McGraw.

Dewey Williams and Hugh McGraw.

The first National Convention was meant to bring together singers from the far corners of the nation, but it also helped solidify relations among southern singing communities that had not historically had much contact with each other. A particularly notable aspect of the minutes is the diversity of singers from within the South. Numerous singers from the Cooper Book region of South Alabama were present, along with a sizable contingent from Texas. Among the singers honored with the invitation to lead for twenty minutes on the convention’s first day were Dewey Williams and Japheth Jackson, both of Ozark, Alabama, leaders of the African American Sacred Harp community. The National Convention was the first contact that many Denson Book singers ever had with the “Wiregrass Singers,” and their continued attendance in subsequent years was an important draw for singers around the country. The list of officers reflects the diversity of the first National Convention—it includes members from five different states, representing African American, Cooper Book, and newly established northern singings.

The lasting legacy of the National Sacred Harp Convention is a testament to the foresight of its organizers. Though the convention now meets for three rather than four days, it is the only singing that exceeds two days, and remains one of the largest annual conventions. Furthermore, Hugh McGraw is delighted to note that singers now come not only from around the country, but from around the world. The National Convention still serves as a centering force within a tradition that is spiraling rapidly outward from its original homeland, bringing together a vast diversity of singers into a multi-day singing that honors tradition while looking forward to the future.

—Nathan K. Rees

For further reading, see John Bealle’s essay on the National Sacred Harp Convention in the liner notes to “Traditional Musics of Alabama, Volume 3: 2002 National Sacred Harp Convention,” produced by the Alabama Folklife Association.

For information on the upcoming National Convention, see the convention’s website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *