History of the Folk Harp

What is a Folk Harp?

The harp is one of the most ancient musical instruments. Elaborate golden harps dating from as early as 3000 B.C. have been found in the tombs of Egypt and Ur Valley in the Persian Gulf. The folk harp appears in Irish stone carvings dating back to 1000 B.C. and is the national emblem of Ireland.

The modern orchestral harp, developed in the 1700’s, has seven pedals around its base that are used to change the pitch of the strings. The folk harp, lacking this mechanism, uses levers placed at the top of each string for the same purpose. The simplicity of the smaller sized wooden folk harp complements any setting and does not detract from art gallery or museum exhibits or from the decor of restaurants or shops

What is a Harper?

The player of a pedal harp with an orchestra or in a concert hall is called a harpist, whereas a harper plays the folk harp and is the inheritor of a long and colorful tradition.

Harpers were itinerant musicians who played the music of the people in any setting. In ancient times, harpers were bards who retold the history of their tribe through story and song. Possessing magical powers, they were second only to the chieftain or king, often serving as advisors and leading armies into battle in order to bring luck to the warriors, to hail the heroes, and to recount battles to the tribes and clans. Unarmed, they were recognized and respected by the enemy and immune from harm. Richard the Lion-Hearted took his harper, Blondel, on the Third Crusade in the 12th century.

From the 13th to the 15th century voices and harp were almost inseparable, the harp providing accompaniment for both church and court music as well as the songs of the wandering troubadours. The Irish and Scottish harpers of the 16th and 17th centuries entertained at large plantations and the towns’ public houses, playing in exchange for room, board, and whiskey.

As the harpsichord and piano gained in popularity, harpers all but disappeared in the 18th century. Their tradition, however, is enjoying a rebirth world-wide.