Sunday, October 5, 2008

Four Generations of Old Harp Singers

"October 5: Traditional Old Harp Singing, held annually since 1921, now at Valley View Baptist Church."

This brief statement was all that announced the 87th annual singing in the Wears Valley church (the white church in the photo). The church originally had been in the settlement of Greenbrier in what is now part of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

The church's walls and ceiling of wood enable the music of the human voices to increase in volume and richness. Today there were about 50 singers whose voices reverberated throughout the church.

One of the singers gave a brief introduction to shape-note singing, saying that it was "dispersed harmony" (harmony in which the tones composing the chord are widely separated, as by an octave or more). She meant that it was not the more traditional harmony, e.g., barbershop. Nor is it traditional church singing. "When we sing with church choirs, members of both groups look at each other in a critical way," she said in a later conversation with us. "Church singers take our harmony and put sharps and flats to it so it gets all messed up," she concluded.

Her final point was: "There are moments when we hold a long note that the harmony brings chills down your spine." She was correct in her description of the impact of the harmony. Also, there are men and women singing in three of the four groups (leads or tenors, altos, trebles, bass), so when you add different octaves to the harmony, the result is a rich, powerful sound. And powerful it is.

The singing is certainly unique. Kate has called it "jam sessions for voices," comparing it to old-time instrumental jam sessions--individuals take turns selecting a song, all voices blend together (no solos), and the gathering is the glue of a community.

At one point, members of four generations led the singing. They are Janet Whaley, Andrew Whaley, Paul Clabo, and Herb Clabo (left to right). Herb Clabo is 97.

One of the observations we have about the singings that we've attended: the majority of the singers are older folks. Preserving this tradition is essential. Hopefully, younger members of the community will maintain the connections within the community that this music provides.

Dr. Bruce Wheeler (left in the photo), who teaches at a local university, coordinates the order of those who want to lead the singing. Today he welcomed a visitor from Scotland (center) to the singing.

We will miss the special shape-note singers, but we are already on the internet looking for similar singings in the states along our route.

(The September 28 entry also talks about shape-note singing.)

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