The History of Jews Harps in America

The Jews harp is a small, single reed musical instrument. It's a subtle musical instrument really, that makes a twanging sound when played. It's sound is instantly recognizable. Jews harps come in a variety of shapes and sizes ranging generally from eight to thirty five centimeters in length. The instrument is held by the player's mouth. The flexible reed or tongue is struck by the player's finger. The player can create a melody by changing the shape of their mouth, the rhythm of their plucking finger, and through breath control.

Jews harps have been around for a very long time. It's one the oldest musical instruments in history. Very few musical instruments have the geographical spread that the Jews harp has had, either. It is essentially an international instrument. Versions of the Jews harp are found in practically every country in the entire world. Jews harps likely originated in Asia several thousands years ago. The Jews harp was introduced in Europe sometime around the 13th century. There is no evidence to suggest that Jews harps existed in America prior to the beginning of the 17th century though. Historians believe that the early European colonists introduced America to the instrument.

The world has given the instrument hundreds of different names. A few of the different names I have commonly heard used are jaws harp, mouth harp, juice harp, or trump. In America, the instrument has been known the longest by the name Jews harp. Before anyone goes and gets their panties in a bunch over the name, I want to point out that the name of the instrument was not selected or ever used in an attempt to insult anyone's cultural or religious beliefs. The instrument and it's name has absolutely nothing to do with the Jewish culture, musical or otherwise. It is not derogatory in the slightest and is used without any intention to cause offense to others. It is one of those cases where the name itself is simply just a part of ordinary speech and has been used for thousands of years. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name Jews harp first appeared in print in 1596, in Walter Raleigh's Discoueri Guiana, using the spelling "lewes harp". There are many theories regarding the origin of the name specifically. Historians know that the name of the instrument is derived from a different term with a similar meaning. It has been connected to the term "gew-gaw" that is used within the Cleveland dialect, an area located in England, to describe a toy or showy trifle or trinket. Some historians have suggested a correlation with the name Jews harp and the French words "Jeu Trompe" meaning toy trumpet or "Jeu Trump" meaning a play toy. Others suggest that it might also be connected to the Early English or German word "Jue" as well.

Jews harps can be categorized as either idioglot or hetroglot depending on whether the frame and reed of the instrument are one piece or two pieces. Idioglot Jews harps are best described as a single piece that the vibrating reed or tongue was cut from. The hetroglot type has a cast or bent frame with a separate, flexible reed. The heteroglot style is commonly found within America and in European countries. The instrument's reed or tongue is generally made from a thin flexible piece of metal or a thin piece of wood. The frames are made of various materials. The Jews harps we find detecting are obviously of the metal variety and are usually made from a brass or a copper alloy or iron. On our metal detecting escapades we typically find just the frames or fragments of the frames. The reed or tongue piece was fragile and frequently broke off. When the reed broke, the instrument was rendered useless and discarded as such. You can't make music using the instrument without the reed. For that reason, a lot of Jews harp frames have been found in rubbish heaps or at the bottom of wells. Since the reed was very thin piece of metal, what's left of it usually rots away as well. Jews harps can also be categorized by the shape of the frame, by the number of tines they have, and by whether the tines are plucked, joint-tapped, or string-pulled.

The instrument has literally no musical quality on it's own other than the note the reed produces as it passes between the frame. The player's mouth acts as the sound box and the player can produce other notes by altering the shape of their mouth or through the use of their tongue placement. For example, to produce a low note the player can place their tongue at the bottom of their mouth and to make a high note they can place their tongue at the top of their mouth. It takes quite a considerable amount of practice for a player to be able to control the pitch, timber, loudness, and rhythm required to play a recognizable tune. A skilled musician might be able to play two Jews harps at the same time or easily switch to using a different Jews harp when in the middle of their performance.

Here in America, the Jews harp is regarded by many as an instrument used for personal entertainment or well even a toy. It however is recognized as a respectable instrument in many parts of the world and has been included in some more formal musical compositions. Archaeologists have determined that socioeconomic status has no impact on who would have acquired and used the instrument throughout history. Jews harps were enjoyed by both the wealthy and the poor. The Jews harp pictured below is an estate sale find and appears to still be in playable condition.

Jews harps arrived to America in the beginning of the 17th century. Many Jews harps have been found at known fur trade sites. They have also been discovered among Native American artifacts from Maine to Florida, which suggests that the instrument was popular among the Native Americans. We know that Native Americans accepted Jews harps in trade transactions. There is written documentation showing that the European colonists traded Jews harps for land. Five hundred Jews harps were a part of the trade transaction to purchase Maryland. A land deed from the year 1677 also lists one hundred Jews harps as a part of payment to the Native Americans for a tract of land. Some research indicates that Native Americans viewed the Jews harps as noise makers and did not use them as a traditional musical instrument. Unfortunately, there is very little written evidence of the instruments use during this time period. I can't seem to wrap my head around their reasoning for accepting silly noise makers as part of payment in trade for more valuable items, such as land, but nevertheless they did. One can infer from written documents that the colonists surely thought they were getting the upper hand in those trade deals too. It should be noted though that while Jews harps were a part of those trade deals there were obviously also other more valuable or important trade goods included in the transactions for the land as well. One might think it was just the novelty of the Jews harp that resulted in it's great popularity among the natives. Like with any other novelty item with time the newness of the item fades and interest tends to disappear. However, it took an awful long time for the newness of the Jews harp to fade so maybe there's more to the story that we just don't know. The early colonists continued to use Jews harps in barter with the Native Americans until sometime around the early 1800's.

In addition to using the item for trade purposes, historians suggest that the Jews harps were also a popular item among the colonists as well. A relatively common everyday item that they would have used daily. The amount of Jews harps that have been found and the fact that all the Jews harps we find are broken suggests that item was popular enough to have been played until broken and also popular enough to have purchased a replacement or multiple replacements. I wish we had more information about their role in the colonists lives. The Jews harp frames pictured below were dug by Todd Yerks. You'll notice that one of them is iron. The other two are brass alloy. The iron ones don't seem to turn up as often.

A few Jews harps have been excavated from French and Indian war sites. Jews harps have also been found at known Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Civil War encampment sites. That is a long span of time. It's seems kind of odd that an item, any item, could remain that popular for that long of a period of time. Jews harps however it seems did. Historians believe that many of soldiers carried Jew harps along with them. It makes sense that they would. It's a small and light item that wouldn't take up much space. It could be easily carried in their pocket or pack. It also would provide them with a form of entertainment or amusement. Music helps to provide a mental break from the day to day activities. We know that music was an important part of the soldiers lives. The Jews harp frames pictured below were dug by Dave Wise.

Historians believe that Jews harps were an extremely popular children's toy during the 19th century. They have found evidence of Jews harps being advertised as children's toys. Child sized Jews harps have also been discovered at sites as well. I could find very limited information about their role in children's lives.

I wish we knew more about the history of Jews harps and their role in people's lives during the 17th, 18th, and 19th century. Unfortunately, Jews harps haven't ever really merited any serious study. There's is also very little written evidence for us to learn from. I hope you enjoyed reading this blog. I would love to see photos of the Jews harps you have found. You can post pictures in the section below or leave a comment if you have any information you'd like to share.

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