Middle Creek

United Methodist Church


Old Harp Singing or  Shape Note Singing

                                 OLD HARP SINGING


                 “Brethren we have met to worship, and adore the Lord our God”.  The singing begins, as is tradition in East Tennessee with number 107 – Holy Manna.   Voices ring out as the leader keeps time, raising his hand high, then low, then left, then right.  The singers are seated in a square facing each other – alto, lead, bass, and tenor each occupying a side, with the leader in the center.

                 The “event” is an Old Harp Singing – little changed from all the previous singings in the Smokey Mountains of the past 150 years or more.  The book being used is called The New Harp OF Columbia by M.L. and W.H. Swann of Knoxville and was first printed some 20 plus years prior to the Civil War.  The book, in its present printing titled Restored Edition, contains all the songs known to be in the original.  It is not unusual to see singers carry a songbook handed down for two or three generations.

                 Why the term “Old Harp” is used to describe this coral mix is something of a mystery. No harp – or any other instrument- is used.  The singing is strictly a cappella.

The word harp appears in the titles of centuries old music books used when singing schools were popular in the south.  Some of these are “The Harp of Columbia”, which preceded “New Harp of Columbia”, “The sacred Harp”, and the Harp of the South”. Some say that people who sing from these ‘old” books are just old harp singers.

Another possible explanation is that when tuning a harp, one string is set as a beginning pitch and all other strings are tuned to it, just as a note (Do) is sounded at the beginning of a song in this tradition and all others are tuned to it.  Still another explanation is offered by singer Martha (Franklin) Graham as she says the name comes from the singing school masters “harping” on repetitions of the notes until students learned their music.

                 Singing schools were begun in the northeast in the early 1700’s as an effort to improve congregational singing in the churches.  Psalm tunes had been sung from memory for so many years with individual interpretation that the result was “musical chaos”.  The clergy decided that people should be taught to sing by note and shaped notes were introduced in these singing schools.  This was a shortcut to teaching music – a simple memorizing technique that allowed students to read music by sight. It replaced the musical alphabet with fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi-fa originally, and later do-ra-mi-fa-sol-la-si-do, and a shape was assigned to each sound.

                 These singing schools faded from the scene in most of the U.S. by the early 1900’s but remained popular in the southern mountains till into the 1950’s and 60’s with some still being taught today in a more limited form.  The early singing schools not only provided for a formal way to teach music, but also provided a social outlet for the community and a time when young people could meet in an acceptable manner.

                 Old Harp Singings where an offshoot of these early singing schools.  The schools may have faded but the singing has never stopped.  The tradition has been kept alive partly because of the isolation of the mountains perhaps, but mainly due to old time family traditions.  Some of the Sevier County families involved are the Lamon, Cardwell, Headrick, Henry, Shields, Abott, Clabo, Ogle, Adams, Ownby, Perryman, and Franklin families to name only a few.  Some of these, as with my mothers’ family, can claim six or more generations of involvement.

                  The songs come from many sources.  Some, such as Old Hundred #11(Doxology in modern hymnals), are old European Psalm tunes and date from the 1500’s.  Some, such as Coronation #117 (All Hail the Power of Jesus Name) are early American tunes from the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.  Still others are old sea chanteys, marching songs, dirges and traditional songs brought from our ancestors home country with the words changed to religious prose.

                 Much of the music seems to strike an emotional cord with people, especially those who are hearing it for the first time.  I believe these songs where our ancestors way of coping with loneliness, illness, stress, death, and life’s other problems.  They sought and found sanctuary in the Old Harp tunes and the messages contained within.

                 Why should we continue with this old fashioned and, some would say, outdated style of music?  After all, it doesn’t help the economy much (the books last for decades even with frequent use and you only have to drive a short distance to a singing).  There is nothing refined about Old Harp Singing.  Anyone can just go and sing or even get up and lead a song of their choice.  It won’t get you elected to political office, put the bacon on the table, or put your children through college.  The only thing it will do is uplift your spirit and perhaps, if we hear and believe the words, it will bring us to a better understanding of our purpose in this world.  I think I can use some of that !!!!!

 Submitted by David Sarten

Text Box:  For information about scheduled singings in the area check www.OldHarp.org  or call David Sarten at 428-0874. 
 The www.OldHarp.org contains a list of all the regularly scheduled sings in this area along with some other links to sites devoted to shaped note singing in other venues such as Christian Harmony and Southern Harmony. 



do-ra-mi-fa-sol-la-si-do fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi-fa