Musical Instruments

The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music— Part 1

My interests in the autoharp and Irish traditional music (ITM) should be apparent from the topics of the most recent dozen or so posts on this blog. I’ve approached them separately as a musicologist specializing in the history of musical instruments. This post marks a shift toward their intersection in performance from the perspective of a musician whose journey started on the autoharp seventy years ago and found his way more deeply into Celtic music a decade later via the Great Highland bagpipe. I’ve since become comfortably conversant with the Irish idiom on the tin whistle and would like to be able to say the same with regard to the autoharp.

Irish dance tunes and airs figure prominently in its repertoire, not least in the US (where some of those tunes also have their roots). However, the instrument does not have an established position among those normally associated with ITM in its home country. Some instruments that are now fixtures in that context became so more recently than might be imagined. Tenor banjos and guitars are regularly encountered in such things as trad sessions at pubs but both had been more or less in the periphery until the 1960s.

At about the same time, the Greek bouzouki found its way into the thick of things. Just as the broad popularity of the tenor banjo was triggered by lowering its tuning by a fourth, the Irish bouzouki can be seen as a lower-voiced cousin of the mandolin. Andy Irvine discusses its naturalization in this video. He names Johnny Moynihan as the primary agent, who summarizes his own perception of the upshot here.

It is intriguing to speculate about whether some comparable sequence of events might set the autoharp along a similar path. Its own close relative, the hammered dulcimer, had a niche in the native performance of ITM, leaving footsteps to be followed. The elder instrument’s heyday extended through the 1960s and its most prominent exponent at that time, John Rea, was still recording in the late seventies. He appears in an interview from an unknown date and plays O’Dwyer’s Hornpipe here.

The first documented appearance of the autoharp in a traditional Irish context was also in the sixties. Continue reading “The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music— Part 1”