Thursday, 14 March 2013

Gargrave: Autoharp Capital of the North 2

This little article will appear in the Gargrave Village Magazine, April 2013 issue - part of the countdown to the Gargrave Autoharp Festival.

Like the article for Autoharp Notes it was rewritten at the last minute when we heard about our successful Arts Council bid.

Some might object that Mother Maybelle Carter got the idea of hugging the Autoharp from Cecil Null.  But note that I say that she is 'usually credited'...

To to show willing I have put in a picture of Cecil Null, hugging, below my text.


Gargrave:  Autoharp Capital of the North

Gargrave Autoharp Festival
Gargrave Village Hall and environs
Friday May 31, Saturday June 1, Sunday June 2, 2013

The autoharp is one of those nineteenth century ‘parlour instruments’, developed when our ancestors wanted to make music at home – when they began to have a little more leisure, and have parlours.  We can think of the mass produced piano or the violin as ‘parlour instruments’, or the reed instruments, like the concertina and the accordion.  Very often a parlour instrument would have some special feature to help the amateur musician.  On the autoharp the special feature actually works.  The autoharp is a shallow box with stretched strings, like a zither.  The autoharp has a series of chord bars.  You press a button, the chord bar comes down – and it silences the strings that you do NOT want.  You play a chord.  Then you play another chord.  And you are making music.

A fun thing nowadays is go to Google Patents, and chart the attempts to change and improve the autoharp over the century.  The autoharp travelled to the United States – where the Oscar Schmidt company became the main seller and developer.  At one point Oscar Schmidt had a contract to supply US schools – you can see that the autoharp will work, in small schools, to support children singing.  American schools keep finding autoharps in the backs of cupboards – they put them on Ebay.

In the USA the availability of the autoharp meant that it became a kind of folk instrument, particularly associated with Appalachian country music and with bluegrass.  The Carter Family used an autoharp in their line up – you can now see the original performances on Youtube.  Mother Maybelle Carter is usually credited with the decision to pick the autoharp up, from the lap or the table, and hug it, like a baby.  I think she did that to get the instrument near the microphone.  But it is certainly an easier and more fun playing position.

A really strange thing about the autoharp is that the best players who have ever lived are alive now.  And you will see and hear one of them – Mike Fenton - in Gargrave, in June.  It is only in recent decades that really skilled musicians have taken up the autoharp, understood it, and redesigned it to meet their needs.  In the USA you will find the Mount Laurel Autoharp Gathering, and the MLAG Autoharp Hall of Fame.  Mike Fenton is the English member of that Hall of Fame.  Also watch out for Nadine White, our expert on the autoharp alongside other folk instruments.  And the Kilcawley Family – brother and sister duo, Damon and Louiza.  That is Louiza on our poster.

The redesign of the autoharp continues – it is a great instrument for people who like to tinker.  There are now different flavours – autoharps that are stronger in specific keys, for example.  I usually sing in the key of G, so I have an autoharp that helps me there.  There are beautiful, hand crafted ‘luthier’ instruments – Alec Anness is the main English luthier autoharp maker.  For the moment I make do with what I find on Ebay – but one day, perhaps.

The Gargrave Autoharp Festival comes together as an alliance between UK Autoharps, a small national organisation, and Gargrave Village Hall, a vital community resource.  We have just heard that we have secured Arts Council funding for our festival.  This is the first ever autoharp event in the North of England – it is our equivalent, perhaps, of the USA’s Mount Laurel.  But in Gargrave I want us to discover the English Autoharp.

On the Saturday, June 1, there will be a day of autoharp demonstrations and classes – inexperienced would-be musicians welcome.  On the Saturday evening there will be a – heavily subsidised – family-friendly Grand Concert.  On the Sunday there will an Autoharp Service in Gargrave’s lovely church.  And throughout the weekend we will fill the village with formal and informal music sessions.  We can hope for good weather…

Patrick O’Sullivan

Telephone 01756 668218

For more on UK Autoharps see 
For more on Mike Fenton see 
For more on Alec Anness see

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