The Early Settlers

...but first a little primer

RMHC Advisory Group member Steve Hartz of Nacogdoches is perhaps the foremost expert in the study of our regions heritage from this period and most of the material in this section is based on his work. The music selections here are by Steve and his neighbors in Nacogdoches, TX who carry on the great traditions of our region as living heritage. To learn more about the music of the early settlers and acquire these recordings, visit the Mystery Ridge Recordings home page or just drop by the Old Time String Shop in on the square in historic Nacogdoches where you'll likely find Steve in front of the pot bellied stove continuing the great traditions of our region. The RMHC is proud to have Steve as an advisor and not just an expert, but a living tradition along with his family friends, and neighbors in Nacogdoches.

This Texas Country Reporter video is a great overview of Steve and friends and their dedication to not just preserving, but continuing the music traditions of the early settlers of our region.

The Early Settlers

Of the Caddoan musical culture little remains. But fragments may be found in the music passed down to us by the early European settlers with whom they mixed in the early part of the 19th century. "Land of the Caddo" is an original song by Steve Hartz that includes a Caddoan flute, and the last seconds of this recording contain one of the few remaining fragments of Caddoan music, Red Bird, a riding song.

Except for some remote areas around Caddo Lake there is really nothing left to provide an accurate sense of what our region was like in the earliest days of settlement. The forests were ancient hardwoods and pines were confined to places where the great hardwoods had died. One early traveler to Arkansas reported he could go for days without setting foot on the ground as the great trees piled one on top of another as they died. The Great Raft of the Red River made travel in the upper reaches extremely difficult and hazardous. Those who braved the alligators, bears, mountain lions, venomous snakes and dense woods to clear a plot of land found the soil incredibly rich...at least for a time until it was overworked. Opportunities for recreation were confined largely to liquor and music. While the music of the European settlers was mostly the folk music of their European countries, it adapted rapidly to the new world as Indian and African American traditions merged with it. The instruments were confined to those that were small and readily transportable like the fiddle. Flutes were made or acquired from the Caddos. Banjos could be made from gourds. The banjo is of African origin but was rapidly assimilated into the music of white settlers as, slave or free, black musicians were often part of the gatherings in the early years of settlement. Drums were whatever could be pressed into service and beaten on. "The Muddy Road to Texas" is a traditional tune that tells of the hardships of the early settlers journey to our region and the few pleasures they enjoyed.


Steve Hartz, in his "Settlers of the Western Woods" and "Muddy Angelina" books and recordings recounts the massive hardships of penetrating the hostile environment of Arkansas and Texas in the early years of the 19th century. Wagon repairs often relied on ingenuity and the materials at hand as related in "The Muddy Road to Texas." Drawing courtesy of Steve Hartz.

The Muddy Road to Texas
1. Well I come down through the Arkansas;
with a Shanghai rooster and a yeller dog.
Oh, that yeller dog he could tree
Run them possum just for me
2. Well I grease my wagon with the pine pitch tar;
wet my whistle with the old fruit jar.
Strum that gourd and pull the bow
Play a little tune on the new plank road.
3. Well I cross that bog down through the cane;
with a mule name Moe and Mandy Jane.
Finest pair that you ever saw;
down in the bogs of Arkansas


The most prominent Caddo tribes of our region included the Kadohadacho, the Natchitoches, and the Hasinia. That the early settlers often had good relations with them is underscored by the fact that "Texas" is from the Hasinia word for "friends." In the early days, they would often bring their own instruments and join in the music with the new settlers. Some of their own rhythms and music were assimilated into the music of their new friends.

The Early Settlers - Singing the Sacred Harp

The roots of Sacred Harp singing came to our regions from early 18th century England. Like here, it was a rural tradition rarely heard in the cities. The settlers of the south were largely the English northerners, not the urban Londoners. The key characteristic of Sacred Harp is that of a system geared to those with no muscial knowledge. The melody was generally assigned to the tenors, and the harmonic structure is simple, using normal only 5 pitches. The shape notes designate the pitch, but not the key, to the singer.

Note that each shape above designates a pitch. Pitch was provided by the leader. No instruments are used, a form called in music "a cappella" which denotes "as in the chapel" where no organ or other instruments would normally be found. "The Angel of the Lord Came Down" by the Alabama Shape Note Singers is an excellent example of how singers would first sing a hymn as "Fa-Sol-La..." to get the tune, then sing the words.

This form of music came to American in the songbook Urania, published 1764 by the singing master James Lyon. With the publishing in 1770 William Billings's The New England Psalm Singer, and then by an outpouring of compositions by Billings and his contempories, Sacred Harp spread throughout the nation. Probably the most successful shape note book prior to The Sacred Harp was William Walker's Southern Harmony, published in 1835 and still in use today.

In the 19th century following the the Great Revival, "all day preaching, singing, and dinner on the grounds" became both a religious and social tradition in the south. These traditions are carried on today in our region.

This form of communal singing was well established by the settling of our area and came with the settlers. It was music to provide solace as the wagons slowly and laboriously made their way to the new lands. The song "I'm On My Journey Home" from Steve Hartz "Settlers of the Western Woods" CD is set against the sounds of wagons fording a river like the Red. The music might well have calmed their fears of quick sand and holes that could sweep them away as they crossed that mighty river.

Our region remains a world center for this tradition. The oldest continuous annual Sacred Harp gathering is the East Texas Musical Convention established in 1855, discontinued in the Civil War years, and then held annually since 1868. The ETMC has moved around over the years in Gregg, Harrison, Panola, Rusk, Smith and Upshur counties, and now gathers annually in Henderson, TX. A visit to this gathering, like a visit to Steve Hartz shop in Nacogdoches, will link you directly to our musical heritage.

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