Thursday, July 07, 2011

Things With Strings: Autoharp I

In considering the future of our usual Thursday feature, it was determined that a side route might well serve us for a spell. Looking around in the study of Chez Alexandre, there are seven or eight instruments lying around. This writer has learned to play all of them, with varying degrees of ability. The guitar, of course, is my first love. This is a review of the others, some of which were the subject of a web design project from six years ago.

This is a performance of the folk-rock band known as The Lovin' Spoonful, from the long-running CBS variety hour known as The Ed Sullivan Show, on the evening of January 22, 1967. Notice that the lead vocalist, John Sebastian Jr, is playing the AUTOHARP. I can remember schoolteachers back in the day, who used to play it on their laps in front of the class, unaware that it was traditionally played in the manner shown here. I also remember watching this performance when it was live:

“Yes I was just thirteen, you might say I was a musical proverbial knee-high, when I heard a couple new soundin’ tunes on the tube and they blasted me sky-high ...”

I remember my dad commenting on Sebastian having a nice singing voice. It was an unusual observation in light of the genre, in relation to the source.

The autoharp has not been considered a staple of rock or pop music, but it has had its moments. The 1979 hit "Just When I Needed You Most" by singer-songwriter Randy VanWarmer was one of them. It reached number four on the Billboard Top 100 chart, and stayed in the Top 40 for 14 weeks, and was eventually certified as a Gold record (meaning it sold one million copies). That instrumental break only looks like VanWarmer back-strumming the guitar, but in reality it is the same John Sebastian Jr, backing the performer on the same autoharp.

John and his band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. Not too shabby for an autoharp player. Next week he'll show you how it's done.

Until then, rock on ...


At 7/07/2011 11:07:00 PM, Blogger Burton said...

Solid Gone...

At 7/09/2011 09:58:00 AM, Blogger mamayama said...

Actually, when the autoharp was invented they intended it for table-top use; Mother Maybelle Carter popularized it's use as a "cuddle-harp". One of the only instruments you can play and sing with the first time you pick it up: a nice, gradual learning curve!

I saw a rock music video recently, where the female artist was walking, strumming autoharp and singing through the whole, can I remember the artist and the song? Of course not! ;-) Perhaps it will come to me...I think she was from across the Atlantic...

At 7/09/2011 10:03:00 AM, Blogger mamayama said...

Ha! Found her: Basia Bulat video of In the Night.

At 1/30/2015 02:30:00 PM, Blogger The_Doug said...

Thanks for the link to the Basia Bulat video. I just read about her for the first time today, while Googling for "rock songs with autoharp." (Which was also how I found this blog.) Besides John Sebastian, James Lowe of the Electric Prunes played one, including on their hit "I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night." I think it had some tremolo or another effect on the intro chords; good Sixties stuff.
NUVO News called Basia "the Queen of the Autoharp."


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