“Sacred Harp” is a term referring to the musical instrument in found in all of us: the human voice. Sung without the accompaniment of any other musical instruments, also known as a capella, this is the oldest form of American music that still exists today.
The music is sung in a four-part harmony using treble, bass, alto and tenor singers. Singers form a square facing each other while individuals from the group take turns leading the singers. Each leader chooses songs that contain spiritual significance that represents the beauty, joy, and loss in life.
“Sacred Harp “or “Old Harp” is a traditional form of singing that started in the New England colonies in the 1700s. This music thrived in rural areas of the south that recognized congregational music as an American tradition. They achieved this by using two forms of memorization that would allow the most novice of beginners to be able to “sight-read” the sheet music.
First, the singer is taught “solmization”, or the association of a given syllable (FA, SOL, LA, MI) with a particular scale. When starting, the singers will sing the syllables below to find the song's scale.
Second, the singer memorizes the shapes (diamond, square, circle, and triangle) of notes in order to help find the pitch within major and minor scales. Memorizing the shapes helps the reader remember the tone. After finding both the scale and the pitch, the singers will then sing the words of the song. Popularized in the 1800s, this form of “Shape Note” singing allowed anyone who was unfamiliar with reading traditional music the opportunity to memorize the shapes rather than musical notation.
To reinforce the methods of memorizing syllables and shapes to help beginners learn the ways of “Shape Note” singing, singing schools were used across the country. Singing schools started in New England during the early 1700s so that all the parishioners of the church could participate in the singing of hymns.
Between 1870 and the 1930s, the churches in Cades Cove offered singing schools to teach the residents of the community the skills associated with “Shape Note” singing. The churches collected money from parishioners to hire a singing school teacher, who would live in the community for up to three weeks while conducting the school. After the three weeks, the teachers would travel to another community where they could introduce “Shape Note” singing to the new region.
Today America’s oldest form of music is sung all over the country and in other parts of the world. Great Smoky Mountains National Park takes pride to have “old harp” singers visit the churches in the park and continue this treasured American tradition. Check the park's calendar for upcoming events.
Watch a recorded session of “Old Harp” singers performing in the Primitive Baptist Church in Cades Cove. The video was produced by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit organization which supports the national park .
~written by Joshua Jones
Last updated: November 30, 2021