National Sacred Harp Singing Convention

The National Sacred Harp Singing Convention is held in Alabama every June. More than 500 participants gather to celebrate the Sacred Harp singing tradition in the state. The convention attracts music and history lovers worldwide, including from the United Kingdom, where Sacred Harp is called gallery music or Georgian psalmody. In Alabama, Sacred Harp is often called fasola or shape-note singing. Sponsored by the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association, it posts schedules of singings, minutes, and announcements.

In Sacred Harp, singers sit in a square to focus the sound of their voices inward and gain optimum balance. They sit in sections determined by singing part: Basses (men) face the trebles (male and female), and altos (females) face the tenors (male and female), who sing the melody. The leader stands in the center of the square and begins with an opening prayer and a brief organizational meeting and then announces the songs by page number. The opening pitch is sounded, and the leader beats time with a vertical motion of the hand, starting by singing fa sol la and mi. No musical instruments accompany the singers.

First held in 1980 at Samford University, the convention was established through the work of Hugh McGraw, a well-known Sacred Harp singer, with the help of Claude H. Rhea, dean of the School of Music at Samford, and associate dean Gene Black. The convention features all-day singings and a dinner each day. The singers use the 1991 Denson revision of The Sacred Harp, a four-part a cappella shape-note book, as their text, with the exception of one night session, called “The Alternate Sing.” In that session, singers use the Cooper Book, The Christian Harmony, An Eclectic Harmony II, and new songs penned by participants in the convention.

The convention is organized and run by a volunteer committee. There are no dues for membership or convention fees; however, a daily collection is taken to cover expenses. Also, CDs recorded at previous conventions are sold to help raise funds. Because Samford University is no longer involved with the convention, local churches provide their buildings to accommodate the singers. Every song is recorded during the convention, as is the name of the leader, and this information is published annually in the Minutes Book.

Additional Resources

Bealle, John. Traditional Musics of Alabama: 2002 National Sacred Harp Singing Convention. Vol. 3. Montgomery: Alabama Center for Traditional Culture. Montgomery, 2003 .

Cobb, Buell. The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.

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