Advent service to celebrate Southern songs

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

OXFORD -- Sounds from the historic South will be heard inside Old Church in Oxford when Meridian Herald hosts the 17th annual Southern Folk Advent Service at 4 p.m. Saturday.

The service, which has become a holiday tradition in Oxford, incorporates congregational shape-note singing from The Sacred Harp hymnal, bluegrass and gospel music.

"I came up with this service based on research I had done in graduate school at Yale about Sacred Harp," said Dr. Steven Darsey, president of Meridian Herald, an organization that promotes interaction of worship, music and culture to bridge the past to the present. "I proposed an advent based on Sacred Harp tunes."

The most famous shape note song book in the South, The Sacred Harp, was compiled in Hamilton, Ga., and published in 1844. The hymns are based on life experiences of poor folk struggling to survive in the 19th-century South.

Darsey's mentor, Dr. Fred Craddock, once said, "People will remember this music who have never heard it."

"I think he meant that it's so deeply rooted in our genetic heritage," Darsey said. "We know it's ours even though it has been lost for generations to us. It's profoundly spiritual."

The service is formatted to include several short sermons of one to four minutes in length between songs. The music starts out describing darkness and despair, with the congregation calling for God to return, and moves toward hope that God will come and "we will all be in joy together," Darsey said.

The sermon will be delivered by E. Brooks Holifield, professor of America Church History in the Candler School of Theology and the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory. Holifield has written numerous books and articles related to religious history, the history of Christian thought in America and early colonial American religion. Music will be provided by Darsey, who is a musical director and composer, The Meridian Choir and the Sonny Houston Band.

Admission is free. Old Church is located on the Oxford College campus, at the corner of Wesley and Fletcher streets.

"It's the only service like it in the world. We're building on the spiritual principles of our forbears and extending those to contemporary culture and the future," Darsey said.

For more information, visit www.meridianherald.org.