In defence of the Autoharp


On Facebook a couple of weeks ago, someone tagged me on a picture of folk musos being arrested in the US in 1961.  Though the original poster insisted the photo was of a young Bernie Sanders, this has proved to be incorrect.  He was just a guy with an autoharp, being arrested for playing folk music in a public place.

On that thread three different guys I do not know made really scoffy remarks about the instrument. An instrument that was made popular by The Carter Family way back in the 1930s and which I play, as Mother Maybelle did, upright, also known as Appalachian Style.
So I stupidly – but very politely – tried to educate them that:
(a) modern harps bear no resemblance to the crappy shitboxes they used in schools in the 60s
(b) work by several US luthiers (George Orthey, Pete D’Aigle) on making the best instruments possible has transformed the way they sound and are played
(c) gave them some names to google to see some really great melody players (Jo Anne Smith, Bryan Bowers, Adam Miller, Lyndsay Haisley), so they could see that this instrument is not a ‘toy’, and
(d) pointed out how hurtful this attitude is to someone like me who has disabled hands and just wants to participate (because, after all, isn’t that was ‘folk music’ is?) . I also mentioned that many older people take up the autoharp when their fingers get too arthritic for guitar chords, because they still want to sing and play music.

My own autoharp is an Orthey, handmade from carefully-aged Californian Redwood and Walnut, with every single piece, chord bars and all, handmade by George Orthey in his Pennsylvania workshop and signed and numbered by him. Orthey ‘harps have an extra string (37), fine tuners and George’s distinctive logo carved into it. I have had this beautiful instrument for around five years, am working on melody playing, but mostly play it like a rhythm guitar. Having so many strings and 21 chord bars allows for a great variety of sounds, further enhanced by varying picking and strumming styles. In this age of electronic tuners, autoharps need no longer wear a reputation for being always out of tune. And, best of all, you can hug it.

Well!   What a total waste of effort.
For these comments I was roundly abused, told I was ‘playing the victim’, and that I am a hate-filled awful bitch!  That I clearly have deep psychological problems. And a whole bunch of other bizarre stuff I won’t bore you with here. There are some really nasty trolling blokes online who seem to get their rocks off on attacking women they don’t know. It seems that some of them are lead guitarists with Messiah complexes who can’t actually sing in tune so like to attack those that can, and their choice of instrument. Although one of these trolls turned out to be a piano accordionist, whom you’d think would have had to deal with his own fair share of this kind of instrument fascism.

I don’t understand it. But it is my hope that they never get laid ever again! Because other musicians, and women generally, deserve a hell of a lot more respect than this.

Anyhow, here is a photo of me onstage, cuddling ‘George’.   (It was taken at The Bug in Brisbane, March 2017, by Mary Brettell.) The naysayers and armchair critics can say what they like. I love him. And instead of being pushed around by arrogant three chord guitarists, I can now play my own three chords, deformed fingers and all!


And here’s something really vintage. You’ll notice Sara played it flat on her lap, zither-style, and strummed at the bottom of the strings.  Found on facebook.

‘1941…..Hands of Sara Carter of the Legendary Carter Family, playing her autoharp. Photographed by Eric Schaal, Poor Valley, Virginia.’


And also (from Pinterest) – Sara (guitar), cousin Maybelle (autoharp) and A P Carter, some years before their first recordings.


And here’s one of Maybelle later in life, now firmly wedded to the upright ‘Appalachian’ style:


If it’s good enough for The Carter Family, it’s damned well good enough for me!


So, I shared this page with a closed autoharp group I belong to on facebook and got some really interesting responses.  Some of which I have quoted below. Thanks to everyone who contributed.

Hal Weeks:

Is it a real musical instrument? Hello. Is yours a Real Ego?

The question isn’t whether the AH is a real musical instrument. The question is “is it making real music”? Let’s look at the answers:

1. Is it being played by a real person? Is that person *finally* able to raise their voice and join in like they’ve always wanted to?

2. Is it building community? Is it bringing people together?

3. Is it a catalyst for the healing of the player? Is it releasing them?

4. Is it something that can be passed to the next generation?

5. Is it transformative? Can it’s ‘music’ create change in the player, the listener, the community, the world?

6. What about all those songs that were first written, played, recorded on the Autoharp….are they ‘real’?? How can real songs be written from an instrument that isn’t real?

7. Is it precision tuned and created by brilliant artisans and craftsmen?

Is it real. Are *you* for real? Don’t get me started.

I’ll make a video of this. Is it real…..grrrr…..

There followed a heck of a lot of discussion which I won’t quote here without permission, but here are Hal’s thoughts (Yes, he did give his permission! And check out his youtube channel generally, it is awesome) on this whole Autoharpophobia thing (see what I did there? Yes, I think it’s a new word.)

Stalking the Wild Autoharp – Hal Weeks


(Me with starter autoharp, off the shelf and standard factory setup. Oakridge. Circa 1998. The factory setup is not at all a good idea. I had no idea what I was getting into, but knew no players, had seen no handmade instruments, and didn”t even know if I’d be able to play it with my finger deformity issues. Upon buying a luthier harp in 2013 I had to choose a better setup and relearn all the fingerings. Steep learning curve.)

Anyhow, for anyone unconvinced of the Autoharp’s ‘coolness’, here’s my final word on the subject. JANIS. If it’s good enough for her …


Not to mention Graham Nash:


And Sheryl Crowe (Looking very cute here):


And Dolly Parton



And Brian Jones (admittedly rather badly and put low in the mix on ‘You Got The Silver’) in the early career of The Rolling Stones …

Need I go on?

I’m happy to be in such good company.