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Southern Folk Advent features traditional shape-note singing

The Sonny Houston Band, including members from left, Rick Taylor, Tom Hicks, Sonny Houston, Tommy Parham and Buck Peacock, will perform at the Southern Folk Advent tomorrow at 4 p.m. at Old Church in Oxford.

The Sonny Houston Band, including members from left, Rick Taylor, Tom Hicks, Sonny Houston, Tommy Parham and Buck Peacock, will perform at the Southern Folk Advent tomorrow at 4 p.m. at Old Church in Oxford.

Hard times, a shaky economy, political fussing and fighting -- there's nothing new under the sun, the Scripture tells us.

As in the days of old when hard-working, ordinary folk found hope and comfort in singing hymns to the Lord, present generations have the benefit of those same songs offering hope and comfort. Thanks to the historic Sacred Harp tunebook, the songs live on with area residents having an opportunity to enjoy many of them this weekend.

Southern Folk Advent will feature many Sacred Harp songs as it comes to Oxford for the 14th year, ushering in the Advent season and offering audience members an uplifting and musical event during the Christmas holidays.

Southern Folk Advent will be tomorrow at Old Church in Oxford at 4 p.m. There is no admission fee, but audience members are encouraged to arrive early for seating. Old Church is adjacent to Oxford College of Emory University.

"It's very important, particularly in threatening times, to remember songs and Scripture that tells us about God being with the needy and helping and defending the needy," said Dr. Steven Darsey of Meridian Herald, which is presenting the event.

"It speaks to God's promise that God is with us and will always be with us. This music from these people who had such faith speaks to us today."

Since its inaugural performance in 1997, Southern Folk Advent has brought Southern shape-note folk hymns into a modern liturgy with the use of "The Sacred Harp" tunebook, an historic hymnal originally compiled in Hamilton and published in Georgia in 1844. Hymns in the book came from the life experiences of poor people struggling to survive in the early 19th century South.

Built in 1841, Old Church in Oxford comes from the same era and region as "The Sacred Harp" and Darsey said that the historic building offers acoustics that help showcase the music.

The service will feature folk, gospel and bluegrass music by The Meridian Chorale, the Sonny Houston Band and Darsey, a noted musical director and composer. Congregational singing is always a part of the annual Advent service.

Seasoned preacher and lecturer Dr. E. Brooks Holifield will speak during the Southern Folk Advent service, weaving brief reflections as the songs are presented. Holifield is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of American Church History Emeritus in the Candler School of Theology and the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University.

Holifield has authored a number of books and articles related to religious history, the history of Christian thought in America and early colonial American religion. He was named a fellow of the American Arts & Sciences this year.

Meridian Herald, which presents the Southern Folk Advent program, promotes the interaction of worship, music and culture as it seeks to bridge communities of the past and present. It presents worship services, concerts, programs and publications toward that purpose.

A Georgia native, Darsey performed his graduate work on the Sacred Harp and said he has a "deep love for this music and the people from whom it sprang," as well as how it helps people connect with God.

Darsey quoted the Rev. Fred Craddock, who once said, "People will recognize this music who have never heard it before. It's in our genes."

Music historians say "The Sacred Harp" is the best-known shape-note song book used in Georgia. Published in 1844 by west Georgians B.F. White of Hamilton (1800-1879) and E.J. King of Talbotton (1821-1844), the song book, both the original version and subsequent revisions, have helped promote the style of unaccompanied singing known as Sacred Harp, shape-note or fasola singing.

Darsey said the music embodies the "struggles and dreams of generations singing and praying for the coming of Christ." He said he hopes the Dec. 3 service will "rekindle this longing for Christ."

The songs will be presented in a number of formats with the Meridian Chorale singing some original arrangements and the congregation singing others, both a cappella and with folk instrumental accompaniment.

"This is not a reenactment, but an actual Advent service," Darsey said of tomorrow's musical program. "We are delighted for anyone who can to come and share this. This is the music of our forebearers, but it's not just for them. It has things to teach us today."

Beth Sexton is a freelance writer based in Snellville. If you have a story idea, email Karen Rohr, features editor, at karen.rohr@rockdalecitizen.com.