“My mother, Mary Wilson Hackney, got me into Sacred Harp singing since it was her daddy who built the chapel,” said Sheri Taylor. “She took me along to all the singings. Now, I’m taking my grandchildren.”
Taylor is the chairwoman of this weekend’s 160th annual Chattahoochee Sacred Harp Convention, and the chapel she referred to is Wilson’s Chapel, which will host singers from all across the nation and around the world.
The singing will be held both Saturday and Sunday at Wilson’s Chapel in the Cross Plains community. The convention is traditionally held every first Sunday in August and the Saturday before.
“Singing usually starts around 9:30 a.m.,” said Taylor. “We usually break for lunch around noon. If we have enough singers, we go until about 3 in the afternoon.”
To get to the chapel, follow Cross Plains Road from the four-way stop on Oak Mountain Road for about three and one-half miles to the event site. Along the way, the road name changes to Hutcheson Ferry Road.
“Wilson’s Chapel was built by my grandfather, Matthew Wilson, in the 1930s,” Taylor said. “He built it to have singings and conventions. There was never a regular service meeting held in it.”
Taylor said the Chattahoochee convention used to go back and forth among different churches. It has met at Wilson’s Chapel most of the years since 1938, and in 1989, the convention committee decided to exclusively use the chapel for the event. The building continues to be maintained by the Wilson family.
The Chattahoochee name comes from the Chattahoochee River.
“People usually enter at the back of the church,” Taylor said. “Most who come to listen sit in the back. There’s usually books available so you can follow along with the singers.”
Attendees at last year’s convention included people from England, New York, Michigan and all the Southern states.
“The number in attendance varies each year, but last year, we had about 150 to 200,” Taylor said. Participating singers range in age from children who can barely read to senior adults in their 80s and 90s.
Taylor noted that when she was learning the singing, she took classes from Hugh McGraw, who had a Sacred Harp singing school at that time.
Keri Miller, a musicology professor from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, visited the singing at the 150th anniversary and edited a book, “The Chattahoochee Musical Convention, 1852-2002: A Sacred Harp Historical Sourcebook.” The book includes text from a centennial history written by Earl Thurman in 1952, extracts from the convention records, interviews with participants and a postscript by Richard DeLong.
According to the book, plans were laid for the convention in the fall of 1851 at the home of composer Oliver Bradfield, who lived just north of Newnan. It was first held in 1852 at Macedonia Baptist Church in Coweta County. The early sessions were attended by Sacred Harp founder B.F. White and other leading Sacred Harp founders of the day.
In the early days, the convention was four days long, starting on Thursday and ending on the first Sunday of the month.
According to the Thurman history, the convention missed some sessions during the Civil War.
He recalls in his manuscript, “The progress of the convention was greatly disrupted by the war. Many of the leading singers were called to arms and it was a serious blow to the body.”
At the end of the war in 1865, the convention met again in Mt. Zion to start anew. The convention has met every year since the Civil War, with the sole exception of 1881.
Sacred Harp singing traces its roots back to 18th century England. It became very popular in the southeastern U.S. as part of Protestant Christian sacred choral music. It is performed a capella (voice only, without music) and is sometimes called “shape note” singing.
“Shape note” means that the notes are printed in special shapes to signify their place on the musical scale. Sacred Harp singing normally occurs not in church services, but in special singings on a local, regional, state or national scale.
Singers are seated in a square arrangement, with rows of chairs or pews assigned to each quadrant, which contains one of the four singing parts: altos, basses, tenors and trebles. There is no single leader or conductor. The participants take turns in leading. The leader of a round selects a song from the book, then “calls” it by its page number. He or she leads, using an open palm style, standing in the middle of the square, facing the tenors.
The pitch at which the music is sung is relatives since there’s no instrument to give singers a starting point. The leader finds a good tone to begin and then intones it to the group.
Sacred Harp music has a long tradition in Carroll County. The Sacred Harp Museum and Sacred Harp Publishing Company are headquartered on Oak Grove Road just south of Carrollton.
The museum is open by appointment only by contacting Felton Denny at 770-832-8198. The building contains a collection of shape note songbooks, ranging from antique to new, amateur tape recordings of hundreds of singings and memorabilia from numerous conventions. It also has copies of meeting minutes, scrapbooks and newspaper articles.
The Sacred Harp Publishing Company is publisher of the popular 1991 edition of the Denson version of “The Sacred Harp” songbook.