The most remarkable thing about our tradition is that our book has been in print and the songs have been sung in East Tennessee ever since it was first printed in 1848 as “The Harp of Columbia” and now “The New Harp of Columbia.” The “Sacred Harp” tradition has been revived and there are many groups across the nation that sing the four shapes. And “Christian Harmony” is our closest neighbor, also seven shapes, and also sung in the South. But Old Harp, as our tradition is known, is only sung in East Tennessee. Larry helped keep the book in print and added in the old songs to enhance our tradition.
I never knew any of the old Singing School teachers and don’t know how they taught the Old Harp tradition. Larry O. tried to maintain the tradition and also moved it forward in his way. He wanted to honor the tradition and the elders and many appreciated his efforts. I have his archives which document his research and I wish that someday we can pay someone to go through and catalog that knowledge. There is a gap developing in our understanding as the oral history passes out of living memory. It makes it difficult for us to agree upon what exactly our tradition is.
Rural counties in East Tennessee were the places that kept the singing going. I know that John McCutcheon “discovered” it in Wears Valley and introduced Old Harp singing to a bunch of hippies at the Laurel Theatre in Knoxville. A small group began meeting weekly to sing at Helen’s house in Fort Sanders. I don’t know how the Knoxville folks integrated the Sevier and Blount County singings, but I believe they were warmly welcomed. I know when I first went to Headrick Chapel when Luke and Lena Headrick and Burl Adams were still alive, I felt I was part of a very special tradition. And when Larry was chosen as moderator of the Headrick Chapel singing, it was a very big deal to him.
I don’t know if I made this up or if it was something Larry used to say, but whoever shows up at an Old Harp singing and sings is an Old Harp singer. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to participate. Ours is an oral tradition and most of us learned the songs by sitting in the square and hearing them sung. This is how the tradition has been handed on. The elders have always had a respected role because of their years of singing knowledge. Our tradition is diminished every time someone passes away but our tradition is also enhanced every time a new singer joins us. A recent convert was amazed that a group of people get together just to enjoy being together. There is usually no money involved, the only formal organizing is notices of singings, and yet when a singing is called, people show up. The people are what make the tradition.
After even a few visits to a singing, one notices that some songs get sung a lot more than others. We all have our favorites and even some we don’t like much. If the same group of people keep singing the same songs, the tradition is not going to change much. But if a new song is selected, there is certainly room for disagreement about if and how that will fit into our tradition.
I don’t read music and that fact kept me from singing for most of my life. The shapes have taught me a lot so that now I can figure out a new shaped-note tune and I have also expanded recently to voice lessons, singing in a church choir, and singing with a jazz band and a Balkan group. Shaped-note singing opened up the world of singing for me and I will be forever grateful.
One of the great things about our tradition is that we don’t demand a certain vocal quality. You don’t even have to be very good. The music is not meant to be pretty. I like the fact our singing is less strident than Sacred Harp singings and that sometimes we don’t sing them the way they are written because we like it the way we sing it. But it can make it hard for visitors to sing along with us. Good, strong voices are appreciated but not necessary. Some like to belt it out, some like melodious tunes, but all stay for the stirring harmonies. It’s heartfelt singing and that’s what matters.
What’s going on now
After Larry died, we created “The Friends of The New Harp of Columbia,” a non-profit Board of Directors to oversee things that Larry used to do by himself. We keep track of the money, keep the book in print, promote singings and the tradition, and I have done the newsletter for many years now (before and after Alan and Sharon Hjerpe). From Larry’s typewriter, to a 12-page graphic production, to a web page and listserve, things have changed. This year, after seeing some singings falter and thinking about the future, I have chosen to reduce and simplify the newsletter. Someone else will take it over one day and probably won’t be using Quark Xpress on a Macintosh computer. I have asked the “Contacts” of each singing to give me their annual and monthly schedules and that is what is reflected here today. I am hopeful that the Board will continue to try to “herd the cats” of unique Old Harp singers and continue to promote this tradition, even as we agree to disagree about what that is.
Some of the Old Harp singers also love Sacred Harp and Christian Harmony singing. Some of us have attended Camp Do Re Mi with its instruction about how to lead, how to sing, how to organize a singing, and more. Those ideas have trickled back into town and have caused some to think we’re messing with the Old Harp tradition.
Opening up our Tradition
Larry O went to Sacred Harp singings, invited them to our singings, welcomed Village Harmony and Northern Harmony, and would have been proud of our singing with the Boston Camerata. He loved it when the young people went right to the back of our book and led the harder songs. He promoted all the local singings and offered rides or did whatever he could to get everyone to attend. We had papers with “extra words” from other books and they got put in the restored edition. So I believe it is true that East Tennessee has been open to other traditions and not been just an insular group.
We have a 1951 recording of Old Harp singers with notes about the tradition. Larry made several recordings of singings. We have recent recordings but again, no one has written the definitive book about how to sing our songs. Any song in the book that isn’t well known is open to interpretation. And because there are standard musical conventions, a good shaped-note singer should be able to sing it “as written.” How to learn the shapes and sing the songs is in the Rudiments in front of the book.
Tradition is dynamic, not stagnant. We are brothers and sisters in the shaped-note tradition and we need each other. I can’t sing harmony by myself so I love to go to singings. I would like to be a better singer and learn how to sing the song “correctly.” I put that in quotes because although we can tell many things about a song by what is on the page, when we sing it, we make it our own. A humorous “tradition” among Old Harp singers is not to follow the leader. That’s not very funny to some people and a good argument can be made that it’s important to follow the leader. (It helps if the leader knows how to lead!) Also, if we do something we can’t or don’t want to explain, we say that it is “local tradition” which stops the conversation. Some don’t like any change and some can’t wait for change. I believe there is strength in our differences. If we all sang bass, it wouldn’t work. Old Harp singers are quite unique individuals. It is that which makes us a great group of people and the people I consider among my closest friends. When we gather for a special event such as a wedding or a funeral, it is often the feelings of comfort and connectedness that we most treasure and remember.
Our tradition is that someone calls for a singing, people show up, and the Old Harp tradition continues.