Why isn't there harp in North American traditional music?
January 28, 2019 10:35 PM   Subscribe

Harp is an important part of the Irish/Scottish folk music tradition, and Irish/Scottish immigrants influenced American folk music traditions - so why isn't there any harp in North American roots music, such as Appalachian folk, bluegrass, and related genres? Or is there harp that I don't know of?

I play harp for fun and am interested in bridging Celtic and American folk traditions as an interesting project, so I'm trying to learn this history. I asked my harp teacher and a fiddler who knows a ton about Irish traditional music, and none of us have any idea so far.

I'm curious for tips, clues, book recommendations, links to recordings, and other things that might illuminate this story or provide counterexamples for my assumptions.

Things I know:
  • There are stringed instruments in the zither family in North American roots music, sometimes called "harps", such as autoharp, lap harp (fretted dulcimer), and hammered dulcimer. Those are great, but it's a different instrument family.
  • There is Mariachi harp in California and other formerly-Mexico parts of the United States, which is American traditional music too! There is significant harp in many Central and South American folk traditions because Spanish missionaries brought the Spanish harp over, so that story is clear to me.
Speculation: Was harp out of fashion in Ireland and Scotland during the eras of mass migration? I've read that harp has gone in and out of popularity in general there.

posted by dreamyshade to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know the answer here, but I will note that harp is certainly not part of the Irish trad scene in the way that say fiddle is. I'm not sure I've ever seen one at a trad session (maybe once, if I think hard?), in Ireland or elsewhere. That may be part of your answer.
posted by deadwax at 2:41 AM on January 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Just my uninformed opinion, but maybe the sheer size and price of a traditional harp just wasn't something that allowed Scots/Irish people to incorporate into their music in their own countries, much less bring over on a boat?
posted by kuanes at 4:22 AM on January 29, 2019 [6 favorites]

Came in to say what deadwax said and what I heard from trad musicians, and that there was a revival of harp music but in 18th and 19th century but the repertoire in the 19th century was more Italian and romantic rather than trad.
This is quite a good source on the history of the harp complete with timelines and details of tradtions The WireStrung Harp.
posted by 15L06 at 4:34 AM on January 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This site has a history of the Gaelic harp. Reading over it, I see two facts that might explain it: first, the traditional Gaelic harp fell out of favor by the beginning of the 18th century; the modern Celtic harp is a separate design popularized over the course of the 19th century. That lull in popularity corresponds with the great wave of 19th-century migration. Second, both the original Gaelic harp and the modern Celtic harp were instruments of the wealthy; traditional harp artists relied on wealthy patrons, and the modern harp was marketed towards aristocratic ladies. A poor immigrant probably couldn't have afforded one.
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:49 AM on January 29, 2019 [16 favorites]

There is a lot of harp in Andean music, some of it amazingly funky toril played during ritual bull vs condor vs. human festivities..

The Yaqui people in Arizona and Mexico use harp and fiddle for ceremonies as well.
posted by zaelic at 6:01 AM on January 29, 2019 [6 favorites]

Just a guess, but weren't most of the early immigrants who form the basis of Appalachian folk music Scots/Irish Protestants? At some point the harp became a symbol of Irish Catholics and those fighting for freedom from England. The huge influx of Irish Catholic immigrants came around and after the time of the famine, where the Scots/Irish had mostly come earlier and established their folk traditions already.Many of their songs descend from the Border Ballads of Scotland. Plus as many have said the classical harp was an expensive and large instrument.
posted by mermayd at 7:09 AM on January 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

That Andean harp carried via strap is amazing.
posted by postel's law at 7:26 AM on January 29, 2019

Johnny Assay has it. The harp was never part of vernacular music traditions, and aristocratic classes were not, for the most part, the migrants who developed old-time Appalachian music.
posted by Miko at 8:02 AM on January 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

Off the top of my head, educated long ago in organology:

There are aspects of the banjo’s African genealogy that suggest thinking of it as related to African harps like the Kora. (And via the banjo, many aspects of modern vernacular guitar and steel guitar technique have an African heritage. While others owe much to Indigenous Hawaiian adaptations of their traditional music to the guitar in the 19th century.) In addition the genealogy of the Appalchian mountain dulcimer (and the later autoharp) likely includes the psaltery and other plucked or hammered zithers and harps. Harp guitars can be found in folk music settings in the early 20th century. So the subject is of course complicated. Really complicated. Harps are definitely not only upper class instruments. The broad category is very very ancient and global.
posted by spitbull at 9:22 AM on January 29, 2019

Decent piece on the harp's role in Ireland and its nadir during old-time's formative period, 1830s-90s.
posted by Miko at 11:29 AM on January 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all, this is great and definitely illuminating! The combination of harp being more of an upper-class instrument and being out of popularity during the core eras for migration makes a lot of sense for why harp didn't get carried over in Irish and Scottish immigrant communities.

And until the last 10 years or so, it still would have been very hard for most people to find an entry-level harp of decent quality for under $500 or even $1000, so it also makes sense that it hasn't made its way into sessions much. I hope to figure out ways of contributing to my own generation of harp revival!
posted by dreamyshade at 11:20 AM on January 30, 2019

Response by poster: Also just for fun: I've been enjoying this video of the Chieftains and an American band playing together, including both Irish and American songs, with a harpist!
posted by dreamyshade at 11:25 AM on January 30, 2019

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