Black Sacred Harp Singing in East Texas

by Donald R. Ross

Music: Away Here in Texas
This article first appeared in the May-June 1995 issue of Away Here in Texas, and was revised in October 2005.

One sad commentary about Sacred Harp singing in East Texas has been our lack of concern for the preservation of the traditions and the purity of this historic and unique musical expression of faith, praise, and celebration. The story of Sacred Harp singing among black people in our region of the state illustrates what can happen when these traditions and this music are taken for granted and what can be lost by not planning for the future.

Soon after I took up Sacred Harp singing in rural East Texas in the 1950's, I became aware that this musical tradition was also appreciated by some black people in several communities around where I grew up. My first personal experience of singing Sacred Harp with blacks was at a small Baptist church in a black community in Rusk County called Mayflower. It was a hot summer night and I thought I was arriving at the singing early. As I approached the church, however, it became apparent that I was late. The crowd was so great that I had to park my car a considerable distance from the church. As I walked towards the church down that country road with cars parked on both sides, I could hear familiar a cappella harmonies, sung in a somewhat different style, streaming from the open windows of that old clapboard church house. When the church came into view, I could see that it was standing room only. Every pew was filled and people were standing all around the walls on the inside and gathered around the open windows on the outside. It did not take long for word to reach the persons in charge that a white visitor had arrived and I was promptly escorted inside and to a seat on a front pew that someone had been obliged to vacate for me. I was greatly impressed by the considerable enthusiasm shown for Sacred Harp singing at Mayflower that night. The singing did not break up until somewhere around midnight.

As my general involvement in Sacred Harp developed, I made it a point to attend as many black singings as possible, but at least one each summer. It was apparent from that first exposure at Mayflower that there were some very noticeable differences in the way black people carried on this musical tradition from the way white people did. For example, I eventually learned that the reason the singing in Mayflower went on until midnight had to do with the way they called their song leaders. At a black Sacred Harp singing, there was no "Arranging Committee" to call the leaders. Instead, the leaders were called by the Convention Clerk with whom the leaders were required to "enroll" before the start of the singing. The way one enrolled was by paying a requisite fee. At that Mayflower singing I believe the enrollment fee was 25 cents. At the last black singing I attended, in the late 1970's, this token had doubled. Further, it was not only the leaders who were allowed to enroll. Anyone who had the required enrollment fee could sign up with the Clerk. If you had enrolled but were not a leader, then when the Clerk called your name, you could designate any leader of your choice to lead in your place and you could even pick the song. The duration of the singing then depended on the number of persons enrolled. This contrast in the number of persons enrolled at Mayflower in the 1950's, and the few at that last singing I attended in the late 1970's, demonstrates the rapid decline of Sacred Harp singing among black people in East Texas. Today, there are no black singings in East Texas, and to my knowledge, no surviving black Sacred Harp singers at all.

The demise of this tradition among black people in East Texas is regrettable not only for what it took away from subsequent generations, but also because of the many distinct characteristics of their style of singing that greatly enriched this old musical art form, and are now lost to this part of the country. For example, these black singers always sang at a much higher pitch than the whites would ever attempt. It seemed to me that the black pitcher tried to pitch the song just a tad higher than the best treble singer in attendance could reach. When he knew that treble singer would have to strain to reach the highest note in the song, then it would be keyed “just right.” Needless to say, the songs were keyed out of my range about ninety percent of the time. Also, black people did not get in any hurry about anything at their singings, including pitching the song. It would not be unusual to key a given song four or five times before settling on the key that was “just right.” Once the right key was secure, they would sing with an intensity of feeling and emotion that I have not seen or heard since. They seemed to sing with such spirituality and from the depths of their souls. In their tradition, there was no option about singing the notes; it was mandatory. If the chorus had a repeat, observance of that repeat was expected for the notes and for each and every verse. If the song was particularly sentimental, it would not be unusual to sing the chorus softly the last time round and they seemed to do this instinctively without any direction or instruction from the leader. Not getting in a hurry was also the norm for the tempo. Most songs were sung much slower than whites sing them. Once when an older black singer attended the East Texas Convention around the mid-1970's and was called on to lead a song, he announced, "Number 106" and then gave these instructions: "I want to sing this song at a T-Model pace. Don't you white folks carry me too fast."

So far as East Texas is concerned--and I was never aware of black Sacred Harp singing in any other part of this state--there were two main annual conventions: the Rusk County Convention and the Panola County Convention. Both conventions used the Cooper edition of The B. F. White Sacred Harp. Both met during the summer months and moved from one rural community to another. I personally attended sessions of the Rusk County Convention in the following communities: Mayflower, Springfield, Chapel Hill, and Waters Chapel. I also attended the Panola County Convention when it met at Holland's Quarters and at Beckville. For many years the Panola County Convention was led by two brothers who were great Sacred Harp singers, Henry and Norman Mitchell. The Rusk County Convention was led by two equally talented brothers, John and Marvin Fite. One of the last of the black singers, the one who led Ecstasy at "a T-Model pace" was Mr. Jerry Brown of Panola County.

The one black singer who stands out in my memory most vividly was a man who lived in the same community where I was reared and whose name was Henry Hatchett. I never remember hearing Mr. Hatchett called "Mr. Hatchett" or even "Henry." It was either "Hatchett" or "Henry Hatchett." Unfortunately, Mr. Hatchett was mentally challenged and, because of his handicap, was sometimes made the object of practical jokes. He was very tolerant and friendly, however, and was loved by all. In spite of his fairly severe handicap, Mr. Hatchett was blessed with an extraordinary gift of singing and the only way I ever heard him express this gift was in singing Sacred Harp. Even though he was unable to read or write a single word, not even his own name, Mr. Hatchett would attend every Sacred Harp singing he possibly could and sing from memory the notes and the words to every song. His favorite was #58, Pisgah, and I have observed him lead this song, straying from the hollow square, walking in rhythm up and down the center aisle of the church, and making everybody happy, especially Henry Hatchett. He had no means of transportation of his own and was always dependent on someone else to furnish him a ride to the singings and back home. Sometimes when these rides failed to materialize, his desire to attend a singing would be so strong that he would walk many miles to get there. Typically, these singings would be held in country churches located in the backwoods off unpaved, tree-shaded roads. If the singing lasted into the night, this meant that Mr. Hatchett would have to walk some dark and lonely roads to get home. One such road he frequently traveled by foot passed near my home. Many times I have heard Henry Hatchett in the late hours of the night singing as he walked down a long hill on this dirt road toward his home, "O Lord, remember me."

It is interesting to speculate about how blacks in East Texas came to sing Sacred Harp in the first place. It is known that many settlers in this part of the state who came from Alabama and Georgia brought their Sacred Harp songbooks with them. It is also known that some of these settlers were also slave owners. Therefore, it is logical to assume that some of these slaves learned to sing Sacred Harp from their white masters. It could also be that, having first heard it sung by whites, they then learned to sing it all on their own, perhaps even after emancipation. However it got handed down, we know that it was not an exact duplicate of the way the whites did it. There were too many practices, in style and procedure, that were unique to them to say they copied it exactly from the whites. Because someone failed to plan for the future and be concerned about the preservation of these distinct qualities, they are now only in our memories. True, blacks in East Texas today can—and should—be recruited to sing Sacred Harp, but I do not think I will ever again hear it sung the way it was at Mayflower that night.

Last Revised 4/4/2021