The origins of Old Harp singing, part 1 of 2

Posted by | February 24, 2015

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

‘Singers in the Harp’ number many thousands of people through the South and West who sing religious folksongs and fuguing tunes.  They are accustomed to meet on one or two Sunday afternoons a month, to sing from one of the many collections of religious songs that were printed in shaped notes around the middle of the nineteenth century.

Such meetings are announced at church services of several denominations around the countryside, and they bring together anywhere from 25 to 200 people, toddlers to great grandparents in their 80s, in a kind of musical prayer meeting.  Once or twice a year, singing conventions, or ‘big singings,’ combine all the singers from a larger area, two or three counties, perhaps, and smaller family groups may meet on an occasional weekday evening in private homes.

Old Harp singers are numerous along the western slope of the Appalachians in eastern Tennessee, in the country around the larger towns and in rural lowlands too, and their religious denomination —Methodist, Baptist, Christian, etc.— is various. They all use one of the most famous of shape note collections of spiritual songs: “The Harp of Columbia,” by W.H. & M.L. Swan.  It was first published in Knoxville in 1848, and is still reprinted there by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.  The groups using this book all call themselves Old Harp singers, although the edition most commonly found is a revision made in 1867 which appeared as “The New Harp of Columbia.”

Old Harp Singers of Eastern Tennessee, from record cover of ‘Old Harp Singing,’Folkways Records FA 2356

Old Harp Singers of Eastern Tennessee, from record cover of ‘Old Harp Singing,’Folkways Records FA 2356, 1951. The seventeen singers featured on this album hailed from the valleys of eastern Tennessee around Sevierville and Maryville, where they sang songs from the famous shape note collection The Harp of Columbia, which was first published in 1848.

The music of the shaped-note singers has preserved, or reverted to (we cannot always be sure which) many aspects of 17th and 18th century music: not only the uninflected instrumental tone quality and the bare harmonies, but also many actual folk tunes.  When Martin Luther remarked that it was a pity the Devil should have all the good tunes, the way was opened for the adoption of secular tunes with changed texts for religious use, and Luther himself bult up the wonderful body of German chorales that were the first music of the Reformation in just this way.

When John Wesley, founder of British Methodism, took over this idea, he missed the real point, however, for he circulated Luther’s German folk tunes among the British under the impression that church music was thus solidly anchored in the ‘music of the people.’  This became the basis for the music of city churches in the United States, of whatever Protestant denomination.

Meanwhile various groups of dissenters in Wales and England, the rebels against entrenched Protestantism in any form, had begun to circulate religious words for use with familiar British folk tunes.  It seems to have been during the religious revival of the 18th century, the ‘New Awakening’ that was preached across the United States by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, that this music was established in America from England.

Most of the tunes, or variants of them, were already here, circulating with secular words.  They can still be found attached to British folk ballads and love songs; some of them are even current as dance tunes.  As folk hymnody, this music was carried by the Calvinist revival fires first to New England, then south to Virginia and South Carolina, and west to Tennesse and Kentucky.  A little later the singing schools and their printed collections of the same folk music were to travel the same route.

sample of shape-note notation

Many singers nowadays feel their way into this music just by joining their family or neighborhood groups and standing next to a good singer on their chosen part.  With a little help from the initiated it is not too hard to fit one’s self into a few songs in this way. The real preservers and perpetuators of the tradition, however, are the singing schools, which seem to have begun in New England around 1770 and to have used tavern sitting rooms for their meetings.  They were conducted by itinerant singing masters, in sessions that used to last 3 hours every evening for a month.

Singing schools are now rare, but still to be met with, though the sessions are now usually no more than two weeks.  Whole families attend together year after year—parents, children and grandchildren—for a fee (at least until recently) of one dollar per session per head.

The long narrow books of religious songs used in the singing schools bore names like “Christian Harmony,” “Kentucky Harmony,” “Hesperian Harp,” “Sacred Harp,” “Southern Harmony,” “Harp of Columbia,” and so on.  They begin with a few pages of the rudiments of music, with sometimes a round or a couple of exercises for practice. The songs are all religious, and are divided into 3 groups: church music, singing-school music, and anthems.

continues tomorrow…

Full text of liner notes can be found here.

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