Sacred Harp singers to gather at Old Court House next weekend|[06/21/08]

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 20, 2008

Sacred Harp singing has a long and storied history stretching centuries, and its traditions are carried forward each year by thousands of traveling singers in hundreds of cities across the nation. As many as 150 singers from across the country and Warren County are expected to gather at the Old Court House Museum court room in Vicksburg next weekend for the second annual Holt Collier Memorial Singing.

“This will be some of the best singing the South has heard in years,” said John Merritt, an Oxford resident and chairman of the event. “We’ve got a great group of people coming to Vicksburg and one of the best venues in the state.”

Sacred Harp singing is, at its core, an a cappella performance of traditional hymns, spiritual and patriotic songs in a four-note harmony, as opposed to a seven-note scale. There is no leader or conductor, rather, the group stands facing each other in a square formation while participants take turns leading from the center. It is primarily a participatory event, and not something people have traditionally enjoyed passively, said Merritt.

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“Really, this is a worship service in song,” he said, noting the participants are primarily Christians of all denominations. “There are some people who come just to enjoy the singing, but everyone is encouraged to get involved. We are not singing for any audience; we are singing for ourselves.”

If you goSacred Harp singers will gather at the Old Court House Museum courtroom June 28-29 for the second annual Holt Collier Memorial Singing. All are invited to participate in the free event, which will take place both days from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., with a break for a potluck lunch.The history of Sacred Harp singing in Vicksburg is not known. However, Merritt said the resurgence of the singers in Vicksburg began about six years ago at the Campbell Swamp home of local historian and author Gordon Cotton. The first several years, the gathering drew a few dozen singers. Last year, the singers organized the first two-day event and staged it at the auditorium of the Southern Cultural Heritage Center.

“We really didn’t know what to expect. I thought it would be great if we got 30 singers, and we wound up with about 125. This year I expect even more people,” Merritt said, who works as a title attorney when not singing. “I’ve been in every courthouse in Mississippi, and there’s none better than the Old Court House in Vicksburg. Everyone is excited about singing there.”

The Vicksburg event is named in honor of Holt Collier, an ex-slave and Confederate soldier from Greenville. He was part of the hunting party that escorted President Teddy Roosevelt on a hunt north of Vicksburg near Onward which resulted in the naming of the teddy bear. During reconstruction, he was tried and acquitted under a military tribunal for the murder of a white Union officer.

“He was a slave, a patriot, a great sportsman – but above all, he was a good old boy who knew who his friends were and stuck with them,” said Merritt. “That’s the memory we’re commemorating.”