Sarten, Sarten, and Whaley: Old Harp Singing

David Sarten
has been singing from the New Harp of Columbia his entire life. Also known as “old harp singing,” this form of shape note singing is distinct to East Tennessee. Born in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, David grew up learning the shapes and tones by listening to his great uncles and aunts, grandparents, and others in the singing tradition. His Great Aunt Grace Clabo and Great Uncle Conard Lamons were particularly influential in teaching and encouraging him to sing. For the past 25 years, David has served as the moderator for local singings and co-instructor at singing schools. He also plays a large role in organizing the annual Wears Valley Convention with the Old Harp Singers community.

Old Harp singing is defined by its unaccompanied four-part harmonies and seven shapes, which make it distinct from other forms of shape note singing, like the Sacred Harp. David writes that, “The style has its own unique and powerful sound that is unlike any in modern music but has been the basis for the development of other musical genres, such as bluegrass and early country music.”

While this living tradition is practiced by a committed group in the community, it is an aging population. David says that it is becoming rare to find younger people participating in the singings. “This tradition has helped to hold people together as families and a community through the common bond of singing and blending of voices,” David explains. “There are 20 or more annual singings in this tradition each year that are held primarily in small country churches, some of which continually for over 120 years. Families sing it together at their reunions and for enjoyment at home. In addition, sometimes we sing at heritage festivals, and local community events.”

For both apprentices, Erin Whaley and Jairus Sarten, Old Harp singing is a family tradition. Both Erin and Jairus have family members who have participated in the tradition for generations.

Jairus, David’s son, began going to singings when he was 7 years old. He is proficient in sight reading shapes and leading the tunes, but David hopes to teach him more about the history and traditions of the music. David sang Old Harp with Erin’s great grandfather. Erin already has a great knowledge of the tradition, and David will teach her to become proficient in sight reading the shapes notes as found in the New Harp of Columbia song book. David will also teach them to sing one of each of the four specific parts, the basic rudiments of the music such as timing, pitch, and accentuation, and all aspects of leading a song in this tradition.

Erin is a music educator at a public elementary school and hopes to incorporate the shape note tradition of Old Harp singing into her lessons. “From a community prospective, I enjoy the aspect of connecting with friends and family members through singing,” Erin explains. “I enjoy being able to sing the same way people sang 150 year plus ago…I believe this tradition is extremely important to pass on.” Jairus hopes to continue his father’s legacy by leading singings and instructing at singing schools. “It has been practiced in my family for many generations,” Jairus explained. “It is also historically important in the Sevierville community, as well as the church I attend which this style of singing has been practiced at for many years.”

*This team is funded through a special partnership with the South Arts’ initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Art & Culture.