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Pioneers of the Autoharp
Nathaniel S. Rounds talks with
Mike Seeger

Masters of the Auroharp

The autoharp is an odd little thing. It's even considered odd by folk music enthusiasts. It's a string instrument with chord bars and dampers; that is to say, it looks like the homely child of a concertina and a zither. While it has been established that the instrument was designed in Germany, not in the states as earlier promoted by the Oscar Schmidt Company, a German immigrant named Charles F. Zimmermann brought it to America, where this novel invention really took off. Easy to play and extremely portable, the autoharp was often offered at the doorstep on an installment plan, another great 20th Century innovation.

Many people were introduced to this chorded zither by a school music instructor who strummed it while warbling "Kumbaya," her slack arm muscles jiggling uncontrollably. In the hands of the right musician, however, this instrument can be made to do incredible things and will leave its inimitable sound lingering in your head for days. Since formal lessons weren't common for the instrument, people had to steal their techniques from other stringed instruments or make up their owntechniques and tools. Kilby Snow, for example, made finger picks from Model T automobile headlamps.

Would you like to hear the autoharp? Maybe start with the few people who mastered the instrument back in the early to mid 20th century? You'd be hard pressed to find any CD album that definitively covers the early pioneers of the autoharp. Unless, of course, you stumble upon Masters of Old-time Country Autoharp, released in 2006 by Smithsonian Folkways. Musician and folklorist Mike Seeger recorded autoharp players such as Ernest "Pop" Stoneman and Kilby Snow back in the 1950's and 60's. Thirty-eight of these tracks appear here, with Seeger's comments and photos appearing in a 32 page booklet.

The New Lost City Rambler graciously answered my questions from his home in Virginia recently. Seeger comes from the famous family of musicians including half-brother Pete Seeger and sister Peggy Seeger. I had some questions regarding how he initially approached musicians such as Kilby Snow and recorded them. One thing was for sure: He understands his equipment. And while we both concurred that his field recording equipment was deliberately made subservient to the rich, regional music he was recording, he recalled manufacturers and product models like he still had them in front of him.

"I used a Magnecorder M-33," said Seeger, "which is a consumer version of the professional model, and it was very heavy, perhaps forty pounds. This one had 3¾ and 7½ ips settings. You had to physically change the capstan. Then I asked for permission to record and would say that this was not for commercial use." The Magnecorder was a reel-to-reel machine that used tape on reels, and was manufactured in the early 1950's by the Magnecord Company in Chicago, Il. It was aimed at home use and was a more refined machine than the blob-in-the-suitcase recorders like the Revere. Still, it was crude compared to the handheld digital devices used in the field today.

"I made a copy from my machine onto another," recalled Seeger. "Later, when I started to work for a recording company I would put leader between tracks. I often made copies and sent them in [to Folkways] and retained masters for most things."

This is standard practice in some production houses. The author recalls working with a sound and video company that sent out copies of their camera originals for all local news stories.

"In those days," remembers Seeger, "I had the machine and I had a Red Cross surplus box that had an omnidirectional microphone and a microphone stand, and cleaning liquid for the heads, and a few tools and cables and mike cables…and about a dozen tapes."

"It varied how I did things," he said in a slow, deliberate fashion. "For example, with Kilby Snow, I heard about him from Ernest ‘Pop' Stoneman. So I searched him out in Galax, Virginia. I searched him out at the post office, the gas company, and found him working at a construction sight. I had already recorded Wade Ward and I asked if I could bring Kilby Snow over and make some recordings in his home. It was in the context of Wade Ward's place [which was close to the construction sight]. Kilby was appreciated by Granny Porter, who was Wade's mother-in-law. I put the machine on and would see if Kilby would wait until I started to record."

It was in this way that the great recordings were made, and come to us with their still rich flavor of traditional ballads. You'll hear lightening-fast, finger picking techniques and a white-knuckled sincerity not prominent today. Ernest Stoneman is found here, as well as Kenneth and Neriah Benfield. The autoharps were for the most part Oscar Schmidt models. While there were novelty zither manufacturers back then, Oscar Schmidt was the only real choice for a chorded zither.

This unpretentious approach to recording these artists is a great gift to our musical heritage. The photo on the back of the jewel case shows the oil-stained hands of musicians poised to play a duet. This is outstanding music performed by hard-working people. If you get a chance to listen to these tracks, you might start to dig deep into these breakdowns, sentimental songs and instrumentals, and imagine that Kilby Snow, having put in a full day of manual labor, stopped by to play a song or two on your front porch. Invite him to stay for supper. You won't be disappointed. - Nathaniel S. Rounds

Nathaniel S. Rounds is a retired filmmaker and has owned and played several Oscar Schmidt autoharps over the years. He is currently looking for his tuning key, which is either under the sofa or in his son’s toy box.

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