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Oxford’s Powerhouse to host annual Sacred Harp sing on Sunday

A singing tradition that has been around since the mid-19th century will return to Oxford again this year.

The Sacred Harp, a tunebook that was originally published in 1844, has songs that were sung by some of the first settlers in North Mississippi.

On Sunday, at the Powerhouse from 9:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., vocalists from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia will be uniting for a community musical event in which they sing these old standards. This will be the 37th year that this event has taken place in Lafayette County.

The singers sit facing each other in a “hollow square” formation as individuals are called one by one to enter the center to perform selections from the songbook. All songs are done without musical instruments.

During the proceedings, an annual remembrance of those lost in the community will take place along with a traditional potluck at noon. Attendees are asked to bring food to help feed out-of-town and out-of-state singers.

Warren Steel, the coordinator of the event, began the Sacred Harp singings in Oxford back in 1981 with the late Ole Miss professor George Boswell. Steel says that while the singings are a tradition in the South, they have spread to other parts of the country and even overseas to Europe.

“I had done it elsewhere before Oxford- in Michigan and Massachusetts,” Steel remembers. “Here, and especially around Calhoun County, it’s a very traditional thing. There used to be a lot of singers there. We still have several singings in the area. Most of them are pretty small, but this one attracts a bigger crowd from out-of-state as well.”

Steel added that the Sacred Harp singings embrace the idea of community.

“There’s no real director,” he said. “Everybody gets a chance to lead and to pick their favorite songs. It just goes on like that. There are 554 songs (in the tunebook). Most of the songs are religious, but not all of them. There are a lot of people who come to these singings who might not even be religious, but they are attracted by the music and sense of community.”

The Sacred Harp is sponsored by the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council and the Center for the Study of Southern Culture.