The origins of Old Harp singing, part 2 of 2

Posted by | November 11, 2010

Liner notes for 1951 Folkways record ‘Old Harp Singing,’ featuring the Old Harp Singers of Eastern Tennessee, by Sidney Robertson Cowell—

continued from yesterday…

The anthem section frequently includes fuguing tunes (sometimes spelled, and often pronounced, “fudging tunes”). Almost all of these books were printed in one or another of the various systems of shaped-notes, and they were distributed by traveling singing school masters who were often also the editors and arrangers.

The idea of giving each note a shape, a square, a diamond, a triangle and so on, to indicate its position in relation to the tonic, was an American invention long credited to Andrew Law, but which now appears to have been used earlier by Messrs. Smith and Little, in a volume that was printed in Philadelphia in 1798.  The notes are place on the five-line staff as we ‘round noters’ are accustomed to see them, the various shapes hollow or filled, with flags on the stems, to indicate metric values in the usual way.

George Pullen Jackson, one of the foremost musicologists of American folk songs, leads singers at the Liberty Church in Lawrence County, TN, December 7, 1941.

George Pullen Jackson, one of the foremost musicologists of American folk songs, leads singers at the Liberty Church in Lawrence County, TN, December 7, 1941.

The variety of shapes simply takes the place of a key signature, directing attention to a few simple interval patterns that are often repeated, instead of worrying singers with the 24 keys and their signatures, which have no bearing on the way the melody outlines sound anyway.  As a device for facilitating reading music at sight, the ‘new patent notes’ were an immediate and immense success.  Incredible as it may seem, hundreds of thousands of copies of shaped-note collections of religious songs were put into circulation between 1800 and the end of the Civil War.  And some of them are still being printed.

The harmonic settings in the shaped-note collections have a rather rough and ready air on paper, full of what were at one time considered to be mistakes in harmony: parallel and direct fifths and octaves, incomplete chords (omitting the third degree) and so on.  This very unconventionality, however, stemmed from a fine feeling for the sound of massed voices that has given us a vigorous and original choral tradition.

The actual singing has an astonishing intense resonance, unsuspected by the eye, because the custom is for both men and women to sing all the parts, producing so broad and full an octave doubling that the frequently omitted thirds of certain chords are never missed.  You simply choose the part you like best and sing it ‘up’ if you’re a woman, ‘down’ if you’re a man.

The melody, under this system of free enterprise, may win out in numbers and so be reasonably audible, or it may not; the treble, and sometimes even the bass may attract more singers than the other parts.  As individual singers like to sing one part today and another next week, there is nothing fixed about the ‘orchestration.’

The fuguing tunes were real compositions in the more usual sense, although traditional fragments sometimes crept into them too.  The name of William Billings seems inextricably attached to the fuguing tune, but other American ‘primitive’ composers were writing such pieces at about the same time.  The enthusiasm evoked by the contrapuntal music of Bach and above all Handel, whose oratorios were given by local singing societies in most of the larger American towns by the end of the 18th century, was probably responsible for the idea.

The fuguing tune retains from the classic fugue form only the successive entrance of independent voices, and their triumphant combination at the end.  The form is incredibly condensed: all four voices are ordinarily set going with four measures, and the whole piece may be no more than 24 measures in all.

'The Sacred Harp' frontispiece, 1844 edition.

'The Sacred Harp' frontispiece, 1844 edition.

Today none of this music in its older religious form seems to be current in New England, so far as we know.  It turns up occasionally in New York and New Jersey.  Farther south, however, and in the middle and far west, thousands of shape-note books are still in use today.

The pamphlet collections of hymns used by many revivalist sects (Holiness, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and so on) are still printed in shaped notes.

The songs are partly old camp meeting songs, partly of a newer vintage, and the pace of the singing has been speeded up considerably.  There is often a syncopated piano accompaniment with ‘breaks’ between phrases of the song, and the music as a whole sounds like a cross between barbershop harmony and ragtime of about 1910.

It is written in ‘quartette’ form (as distinct from the older shaped-note music with the melody in the tenor). The tune has moved into the upper part and the women sing it alone.

Full text of liner notes can be found here.

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