"Woman is said to be like a Jew's Harp because she is nothing without a tongue and must be pressed to the lips. Then she is music for the soul."
      Hawk's Eye newspaper,Iowa, June 6, 1844

Pronounced jooz harp, possibly a corruption of "jaw's harp" a jew's harp is a musical instrument in which a small frame flanks a narrow, flexible tongue attached at one end to the frame. Names can be misleading, it's neither a harp nor does it refer to the Jewish people. The frame is held against the teeth near the free end of the instrument's tongue, which is set in vibration by various methods. The instrument's tongue produces only one tone; when the players change the shape of the mouth cavity, various harmonics or component tones, of this fundamental tone are made prominent. The harmonic series produced is the same as that of a trumpet.

The instrument has hundreds of names around the world. This particular moniker might be a mistranslation of a French word, 'jouer', which means 'to play'. In 15th and 16th century Britain, this instrument was called a 'Jew's Trump.' However, the ancient roots attest to the presence of this ingenuous little instrument in many cultures of the world. Although it's written heritage is scarce it has made a presence in many countries world wide and known by many names in just as many countries. England calls it a gewgaw while farther to the west in Germany it's called a maultrommel meaning mouth drum. It's known as a munnharpa or munnharpe in Norway while the French refer to it as a guimbarde Italians say scacciapensieri meaning, "to chase your thoughts or troubles away". In contemporary Spain it is called the 'trompa inglesa', meaning English trumpet, suggesting that it was imported. Many call it a vargan in Russia and Siberians have named the little instrument a khomuh. It's a koukin in Japan, In Bali it's a genggong and people from the Philippines call it a kumbing or kubing. Possessing a rich oral heritage, in New Guinea, it's a traditional ceremonial instrument played exclusively by men at religious events. Among certain Asian communities, it has been used to serenade loved ones; when left as a gift it might be considered a proposal of marriage. In Austria during the early 19th century, silver jaws harps or 'maultrommel' were said to be banned by authorities who thought they were instruments of seduction!

The etymology of the phrase is hard to decipher. Some understandably might think it's a slur but most experts discount that idea saying "there is no indication that the origin was connected with Judaism or the Jewish people." Instead they consider the word to be a corruption of some kind. Many speculate that it may have evolved from the word juice because of the drooling that often accompanies amateur performances. Others consider it to me a variant of several different words; jaw's, jeu, jeugd, gewgaw, giga, and gawe. Gordon Frazier, an editor for a magazine called PLUCK written for aficionados of the Jew's harp tells his readers:

    "In brief: The earliest known written citation of Jew's harp in 1595, in England. Prior to that it was called Jew's trump (earliest spelling: jewes trump). Before that it was known as trump in Scotland and northern England; the origin of the "jewes" preceder is obscure. However, there is no indication that the origin was connected with Judaism or the Jewish people. It probably came from some other word -- one possibility is the Old English word gewgaw - and was then, many years later, "fixed," resulting in the current form.

A player of the instrument is called a "jaw harpist." And there has been in the last decade a movement in the form of political correctness to change the name to jaws harp. Mr. Frazier has this to say:

    And even though aficionados of the Jew's harp are aware that in most of the world,--perhaps even most especially in Europe -- the instrument has been revered, not reviled, the fact remains that perceptions can be as important as fact.

    English is a fluid, flexible, and capricious language two decades ago 137 different types of Jew's harp were cataloged for the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. Their collection of instruments has been collected from all over the globe; from Norway to Thailand and Bali, Austria to Siberia. They are made of iron, brass, bamboo and ivory. Whether Jew's harp, trump, jawharp, or something else enters popular usage cannot really be dictated. Even if it could, changing language in the name of "correctness" seems a bit Orwellian.

The instrument has no specific repertoire and frequently the music consists of improvisations on well-known tunes to show off a performer's virtuosity. The Jew's Harp has been used to both heal the sick and induce trance. Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer a psychotherapist is said to have used the instrument therapeutically.

Jew's harps are found just about everywhere in Russia. Bamboo and wooden lamellate types are found in the Pacific, Southeast Asia and in China. The morchang of Rajasthan are manufactured by the blacksmiths and played by men who belong to the communities of snake charmers as well as by a few professional folk musicians. In Northern China the classical form of the Jew's Harp is an iron idioglot lamellate kind.

Circa 1350 India and Europe had onion-shaped, forged-iron frames that narrow to two protruding arms; a separate tongue is affixed to the frame. The player twangs the free end of the tongue with a finger. Clothespin-shaped jew's harps with the frame and tongue cut of the same piece of bamboo are found in the Pacific Islands. These are often sounded by jerking a cord attached to the instrument. In Southeast Asia jew’s harps, are probably the oldest form, the narrow, rectangular frame of bamboo or, rarely, sheet metal completely surrounds the free end of the tongue, which is vibrated by plucking a tab on the flexible frame.

None have been found to exist in the Pre-Columbian era of the Americas and they appear in Africa after European trade routs were established. Colonization established it presence on the Australian continent as well. The most plentiful and oldest are made of bamboo. Here's a brief time line of the history of this little instrument:

  • 900 AD Iron Koukins - A thousand years old these were discovered in Japan in 1990. Because they were made of iron it is thought that the instruments were the belongings of powerful men as opposed to toys.
  • 1399 AD - Old frames are found in Germany. Determined to be the oldest known from Europe, a large number have excavated from earlier dates, some Anglo-Saxon and some Carolingian. Several are claimed to come from the Roman era, but there are those who dispute this.

  • 1500 AD - Jew's harps were a common peddler's goods.
  • 1511 AD to date - the issue of if the Jew's Harp is a chromatic or percussion instrument, still has not been settled. Most recently, Fredrick Crane and Ole Kai Ledang have classified the Jew's Harp as an aerophone. Arguing that full functioning of the instrument occurs only when a stream of air moves past its tongue.
  • 1593 AD - Documents show that on May 8, 1593, a Spanish exploratory party was involved in a transaction of 500 Jew's Harps with the natives of northeastern South America.
  • 1660 AD - On June 24th Parliament lists them among the products requiring an import rate in the colonies.
  • 1650 AD - In a letter to Richard Bentley, Horace Walpole penned,
      "This very morning I found that part of the purchase of Maryland from the savage proprietors (for we do not massacre, we are such good Christians as only to cheat) was a quantity of vermillion and a parcel of Jew's Harps!"
    The iron works at Saugus, Massachusetts, near Boston were manufacturing Jew's Harps as early as 1650.
  • 1677 AD - One land deed of 1677 lists 100 Jew's Harps among the items given as payment for a tract of Indian land.
  • 1700 AD - At the turn of the century, 10 gross of Jew's Harps are found in the inventory of three Dutch New York merchants. These instruments are also listed in Virginia Gazette advertisements during the middle of the 18th century.
  • 1745 AD - Jew’s Harp House was one Lond farmhouse converted to a Resort and tavern with tea gardens, a pond and tropball, tennis, skittles. In 1811 it moved location and still operated as a tavern until at least 1827 when the building was destroyed during World War II.
  • 1765 AD - Around 1765, Austrian composer and organist and one of Beethoven's music teachers, Johann George Alberchtsberger, composed a number of concerti for the Jew's harp.
  • Seventeenth and eighteenth century archaeological research recovered Jew's harps from Maine to Florida. More than 120 were found at one site in Michigan alone. Conclusive evidence of the use of the Jew's Harp is by no means abundant, except for the fact that practically all of the Jew's Harps which have been archaeological finds have been in dis-repair, which means the tongues were broken and missing. Most of them were discovered down wells or among rubbish heaps meaning perhaps that they were played then thrown away when they broke. Evidence shows that the use of Jew's Harps as a barter item with the Indians continued till as late as 1815 and 1820.
  • 1850 AD - Until the 1850's, the Jew's Harp attained a remarkable prominence in the musical life of Western Europe.
  • 1890 AD - A great virtuoso Jew's Harpist, was Karl Eulenstein (1802-1890), died at 88 years old. He started violin lessons using his father's violin at eight years old. Musically gifted Karl practiced daily. When he reached the age for apprenticeship, he went from a bookbinder, to a merchant, and graduated as a baker but his first love was always music. While working for a merchant, he purchased his first jew's Harp practicing as much as he could during his spare time. During this time, he attended a concert by the Jew's harp virtuoso, Franz Koch (1761-1831) and the effect was powerful. Kunert, another Jaw harpist also greatly influenced him. Soon he began to compose his own variations to different songs and attempting to set up private concerts. Lacking finances, contacts and public playing experience, he was not successful until 1824 in Stuttgart, Germany he was a hit and soon became renown throughout Europe. Recognized as one of the finest players in London he performed for royalty. When he lost one of his front teeth and it was replaced with a false tooth, he was unable to play for sometime so he began to give guitar lessons making a substantial living for several years. He renewed his jew’s harp concerts once more but continued to lose teeth and had to retire from it altogether.

Capable of spectacular punctuation and subtle variation it is an instrument with a long tradition. Made of bone, wood, or other organic materials they have been in use for thousands of years. Iron or steel trumps may date back to before Roman times. From Beat Magazine in December 1, 1999 comes a nice summary of its function and history:

    It is supposed that the lamellate variety is older in chronological terms...In Europe, bronze instruments from the Gallo-Roman period represent the oldest recorded discoveries, and because of their resemblance to modern Indian, Nepalese and Afghani designs, Curt Sachs proposed that the Asian type of bow-shaped Jew's harp was the direct descendant of the European. ... there is strong evidence to suggest that during the Middle Ages, the Jew's harp was not merely "an instrument among fools and beggars," as widely believed, with a late medieval painting of the Virgin and Child depicting three angels, one playing a Jew's harp, one a tromba marina, and one a fiddle...in nineteenth-century Austria, silver Jew's harps were a popular serenading instrument among eligible young bachelors. "So popular was the custom and so discreet and persuasive the sound of the guimbarde (maultrommel) that female virtue was endangered and instruments were repeatedly banned by the authorities," writes Anthony Baines ...the use of the instrument in courting practices has also been observed in places such as Siberia, China, Cambodian, Indonesia, the Philippines, New Zealand and New Guinea, with several traditions in existence that use the Jew's harp during actual conversation...

    In cultures such as those belonging to the Siberian and Mongolian peoples, the instrument has associations with shamanism...In the Malaysian rainforest, the Temiar possess a gengon (Jew's harp) ..(as) an art form exclusively reserved for men. "This mouthharp goes back to the origins of we forest people. We play it for entertainment, or if our hearts are lovesick, homesick, melancholy, then we make it better, as it was during peaceful times; we clear our hearts." ...in the Bosavi rainforest of Papua New Guinea, the Kaluli people refer to their Jew's harp as uluna. ...measuring eighteen centimeteres and is constructed out of a single piece of bamboo, with its two long slits forming a tongue... men improvise alongside forest sounds, such as cicadas and birds to create the characteristic 'lift-up-over-sounding' aspect of Bosavi musical aesthetics.

    In striking contrast, on the Indonesian island of Bali...the Jew's harp has a place in the Gamelan Genggong. In (a) large musical setting for collective entertainment, the Jew's harps are essentially treated in the same manner as regular Gamelan instruments, with two groups of players performing in alternation, supporting the melodic line of the suling, and a third performing an interlocking pattern.

The musical possibilities can be increased by the use of additional tongues, giving additional tones, and in the early 19th century Germany, jew’s harps were made with as many as 16 tongues. Although the it enjoyed a brief period of distinction as a concert instrument in the 18th and 19th centuries in Germany and Austria, it has been primarily used in folk music.

Today concerts and festivals featuring jaw harpists and the magical essence of this simple instrument are enjoyed around the world. There are double-tongued variants, for the ambidextrous players who wish to use two or more instruments and mechanical devices for clamping instruments together. Handcrafted from stainless steel and carefully tuned to standard pitch costs range between five and thirty dollars in the U. S. The shimmering tones of the instruments have become technically categorized as 'plucked idiophones' appearing more and more in electronic pop, avant-garde jazz in some parts of the world while other parts like Scandinavia enjoy a revival of folk music interwoven with contemporary styling.

Selected Sources:

History of the Jew's Harp:
www.jewsharpguild.org/history.html

"Jew's Harp"
http://encarta.msn.com

Jew's Harp:
www.si.umich.edu

Jew's Harp:
www.users.bigpond.com/apertout/Jew'sHarp.htm

A bluegrass musical instrument that consists of a vibrating plane of metal that is moved between the teeth. The inside of the mouth serves as a sounding board. When played properly, a jaw harp should make a rich 'boing' sound when you pluck it. Jaw harps are usually used as the sound effect for springs on cartoons.

Snoopy plays a jaw harp.

The Jew's harp was used by Siberian shamans to induce trances. It was often used by Europeans for trade with the Native Americans, as the shamans of many tribes immediately recognized its psychadelic qualities. In medieval European drawings, Jew's harp players were often depicted as somewhat demonic, coming up very close to the audience with mischevious grins on their faces and sometimes pig-like ears or even horns.

Jew's-harp` (?), n. [Jew + harp; or possibly a corrupt. of jaw's harp; cf. G. maultrommel, lit., mouthdrum.]

1.

An instrument of music, which, when placed between the teeth, gives, by means of a bent metal tongue struck by the finger, a sound which is modulated by the breath; -- called also Jew's-trump.

2. Naut.

The shackle for joining a chain cable to an anchor.

 

© Webster 1913.

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