Arrival of Christ central to the Southern Folk Advent music

Singers perform at the Southern Folk Advent concert at Old Church.

Singers perform at the Southern Folk Advent concert at Old Church.

Celebrating its 20th year as a holiday tradition, the unique service of the Southern Folk Advent will once again take place at Old Church in Oxford. The free concert is tomorrow at 4 p.m. and the three men who brought the old music and message to life two decades ago will come together as part of this milestone performance.

"I'm grateful all three principals are still around," said Steven Darsey, one of the principals and the man whose master's thesis work at Yale University turned into the beloved Christmas tradition that has become Southern Folk Advent. "In honor of this important occasion, our founding preacher, Fred Craddock will attend and bring greetings."

Darsey, Craddock and Sonny Houston of The Sonny Houston Bluegrass Band were there in the beginning when Southern Folk Advent debuted at Candler Chapel at Emory University. A few years later, the annual event moved to Allen Memorial UMC in Oxford while Old Church was being renovated.

Southern Folk Advent soon found its home at Old Church where it has entertained audiences during the Christmas season ever since.

Speaking at Southern Folk Advent this year will be prominent theology professor and award-winning author E. Brooks Holifield, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of American Church History Emeritus at Emory University. He is a renowned scholar, speaker and author on American religious history. Holifield was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences last year.

Darsey, a Georgia native, was working on his master's thesis 21 years ago when he discovered his mother's side of the family led singing in North Carolina. He traveled there to interview a relative and while he was there, he found the Sacred Harp hymnal in her office. Darsey noticed that many of the texts in the book focused on an Advent theme.

"There was a longing (in the songs) for Jesus to come to us or for us to go to Jesus," he said.

Darsey talked to Craddock about putting together the Southern Folk Advent program using the Sacred Harp as a basis.

"He is a great preacher and a dear friend," Darsey said of Craddock, adding that the minister is planning to attend the upcoming program in Oxford if his health permits.

The historic Sacred Harp tunebook featured shape-note folk hymns and was 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 the early 19th century South.

Old Church is from the same era as Sacred Harp. Built in 1841, the church is on the corner of Fletcher and Wesley Streets near Oxford College of Emory University in Oxford.

The Sonny Houston Bluegrass Band will again provide bluegrass-gospel music for Southern Folk Advent. The Meridian Chorale will sing, with Darsey as music director.

"(The) haunting music embodies the struggles and dreams of generations singing and praying for the coming of Christ," Darsey said.

Darsey's Meridian Herald organization presents the Southern Folk Advent program each year. Meridian Herald works to emphasize the indigenous traditions of the South, as well as presenting programs with spiritual depth regarding society and the church.

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

If you go

What: Southern Folk Advent

When: Saturday at 4 p.m.

Where: Old Church, at the corner of Fletcher and Wesley Streets near Oxford College of Emory University in Oxford

Cost: Free