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How the jaw harp became a commodity in Great Britain and Ireland: Michael Wright’s book about the jaw harp

“The Scottish and Irish integrated the jaw harp into their music culture, the English did not,” writes Michael Wright in his book about jaw harps in Great Britain and Ireland, which was published in 2015. Even though the English didn’t play the jaw harp that very often, since the 18th century at the latest England was one of the largest jaw harp manufacturers and exporters. In his detailed book about the British and the Irish “jews-harp” the jaw harp expert Michael Wright contributes important information about the economic and cultural history of the widespread instrument. On what trade routes did the jaw harp get to England and who bought it? Why became Birmingham the center of jaw harp manufacturing? Who built the instruments? Why is the jaw harp in English called jews-harp? The book is recommended for jaw harp lovers and beginners, but also for experts. It provides the basics of the instrument, uncovers several correlations in the European history of the jaw harp and invites to look into the numerous references from archives about the culture of the instrument and its depiction in the fine arts, architecture and press.

Michael Wright book The Jews-Harp in Britain and Ireland

Although music is not the first priority in Michael Wright’s “The Jews-Harp in Britain and Ireland“ it is possible to get an idea of the music from the British and Irish jaw harp. Wright’s book contains recordings in a supplementary CD, which all root back to the Wright family – who are the strongest protagonists in fostering jaw harp culture over the last 50 years. The recordings are from 2008 to 2015. Some of them are from the legendary John Wright, Michael’s brother. Particularly the last piece on the CD (no. 17) is impressive: Banish Misfortune. It’s the first piece that John Wright taught his brothers in 1968. The three-tone played jig from Ireland unfolds a broad tapestry of sound and covers the whole range of instruments. It’s the example for polyphonic jaw harp playing per se.

The book comes in 3 parts with respective 3 chapters. All basics regarding origin, name, and already published literature is summarized in the first part. The jews-harp as an economic commodity with traders, jaw harp smiths, and oversea buyers are outlined in the second part of the book. Part 3 is a collection of numerous jaw harp sources and references in arts and culture of several eras.

Part 1: Basics

How is a jaw harp sound formed, what playing techniques have an impact on the sound, how is the instrument defined in old encyclopedias and what literature does already exist? The first chapter named “Theorists” explains those basics. Right at the beginning Wright is posing a question, which will be discussed from different angles: does the jaw harp belong to “pluck idiophones” – as defined by musicologists Hornbostel and Sachs in their classification – or is the jaw harp an aerophone – as suggested by the jaw harp expert Frederic Crane – since the sounds are created by air swirls and the jaw harp material itself does not produce the sound.

In the second chapter the next discourse starts. What is the origin of the jaw harp? Since experts and scientist haven’t agreed on a common theory yet, Michael Wright decided to collect what archaeological findings are able to prove. He discusses the function of the instruments in history. While the jaw harp in Siberia has had a spiritual meaning until today Wright proves that in the territory of today’s Great Britain and Ireland it was an affordable instruments for relatively poor people. Wright comprehensively analyses the archaeological finds and insights. He mainly refers to the research of the archaeologist Gjermund Kolltveit. They prove that in the 15th century the jaw harp was a commodity for the mass market. This conclusion is discussed in detail in the second part of the book.

In the third chapter, a discourse with importance for the English-speaking area is being discussed. It features the origin and use of the term jews-harp. Wright researched more than 3,000 newspapers, journals, trading papers and dictionaries to find out, in what times how often the word was used. He portrays the history of the word jews-harp with the support of those references . He demonstrates that different terms circulated such as Gewgaw, Juice Harp or Jewes Harp. Wright agrees to the thesis that a lot of those words may have originated based on misunderstandings, e.g. words were written down as heard. Yet one can only speculate – Wright points out that there have been many attempts to prove how jews-harp became the common name of the instrument. Some arguments were confusing, others just ridiculous.

A very detailed overview is outlined in the section named “The Jewish Connection”. It helps the reader to understand why the term jews-harp today is being critically perceived and partially being avoided. Since the instrument has no historical connection to Jewish culture and the term has been used in anti-Semitic or at least pejorative contexts as early as the 19th century, some jaw harp fans in the English-speaking community more and more have come to use “mouth harp” or “jaw harp”. If due to popularity one sticks to the term “jews-harp”, then, as Wright suggests, the word should be written without apostrophe and thereby create a proper name that does not allow the association to “harp of the jews”. That’s why in his book Wright continuously uses the term jews-harp without apostrophe and with hyphen.

Part 2: Economic commodity

The second part of the book is named “Commercial Exploitation”. Why did the jaw harp become already popular in the 13th century? Wright presents sources that prove a very early import of jaw harps in large quantities from the Netherlands to England. “There is no proof that back then the jaw harp had some ritual and social status. Furthermore. It didn’t have any particularly high financial value either. Nevertheless it was established that since the 13th century the instrument was shipped into the country in considerable numbers.” If one follows the trail of Michael Wright’s research, this commercial flow, which is proven by numerous documents, is connected to the economic upturn in the 12th and 13th century that is named by historians as the “Commercial Revolution”. The jaw harp became an import item in England. Its cheap price appears to be an indicator that people with a humble background were able to afford such instrument. The question where in Europe the jaw harps were produced remains unanswered as indication about the production site of larger quantities prior the 17th century is yet missing. So far it’s only known that many items were transported by ships from ports of the Northern and Baltic Sea into the country.

The making of jaw harps in the big production centers of Boccorio in Italy and Molln in Austria can only be traced back to the early 17th century. In Great Britain, too, the production started about at the same time. England had its first own “trump-maker” since the 17th In the late 17th century the families in the West Midlands, in the wider Birmingham region, started producing jaw harps. Michael Wright describes in his book how Birmingham became one of the biggest jaw harp production centers in Europe. The tiny instrument as a mass commodity: in chapter 5 that features the jaw harp smiths in Great Britain and Ireland Wright demonstrates that as early as from the 19th century on jaw harps were made in different qualities, meaning there was a certain price range for the instruments. Still, one could buy jaw harps for only a few pennies, but more and more higher-priced items were sold as well. As Wright shows, some families passed down the heritage of the craftsmanship over many generations. Chapter 6 depicts how their jaw harps were shipped in vast amounts to North America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Many instruments remained in Scotland and Ireland. There, the jews-harp was a popular instrument among a lot of people.

Part 3: Jaw Harp References

The third part of the book is the work of a collector. In chapter 7 and 8, Michael Wright provides references of historical and present representations of the jaw harp in art, architecture and media. These chapters are meant for the reader to browse, explore and be amazed. The readers will find caricatures, illustrations, paintings, and poems. An entertaining read that is fun and emphasizes the humoristic, playful side of the jaw harp. The last chapter is dedicated to British and Irish jaw harp players. The reminiscences of past jaw harp players that were convicted with the death penalty as thieves and murderers is curious. Particularly memorable is the story of Geillis Duncan who even played for the king with her jaw harp until she was executed in 1590 due to allegations of practising witchcraft.

Reading all those stories, one wishes to be able to hear some historical jews-harp moments with one’s own ears. As far as it is known, the oldest jaw harp recording roots back to the year 1933. It was played in the song “I took my harp to a Party”. Furthermore, at the end Michael Wright refers to some jaw harp recordings. A collection of popular music songs that use the jews-harp is covered as well. The part about the new generation of jaw harp players, the role of the jaw harp in the internet and the outlook to the future are touched rather fragmentary.

The book delivers many impulses. The strongest impression makes the depiction of the jaw harp in Great Britain and Ireland as a good and economic commodity. Wright demonstrates in a vivid manner and based on numerous proof how the instruments developed from an import good in the 13th century to an export good in the England of the 18th century. Unfortunately, it cannot precisely established what kind of people in the 13th century used the jews-harp on what occasions. Here, source material is missing. Again, we need to assume that at that time the jaw harp was given a low cultural status. Wright quotes the English author Samuel Pegge who wrote in 1778 that this instrument is nothing more than a “boy’s toy”, which would neither go along well with a voice nor with a music instrument. Content-wise, the book has a stronger focus on Great Britain and Ireland. The book does not deal with the music itself, i.e. the repertoire for English and Irish jaw harp. It was published in English by Ashgate. For a scientific paper, unfortunately “The jews-harp in Britain und Ireland” is with 80 Euro much more expansive than the average book.