Autoharp

The sound of the autoharp reminds me of my childhood. My mother would occasionally take hers out and play songs like You are my Sunshine on it. I love hearing her sing, and so these moments were always special.

It’s an interesting instrument. It has such an incredibly low barrier to entry—just press a button and strum the strings and you get a chord—but of course doing anything sophisticated like playing a melody gets difficult very quickly.

For some reason this evening I thought I’d try to collect various songs that featured an autoharp into a single playlist.

To start with, I remembered that there was some track by Henry Mancini that featured it. In the process I discovered that it’s on at least three segments of the soundtrack for Experiment in Terror, a thriller of some sort set in San Francisco. Apparently he found the sound of an autoharp being strummed with a metal pick and no chords pressed to be quite chilling, and he played it himself on the soundtrack, most famously in the title music. It gives the music a unique sound in a way that only Mancini knew how to do.

I also remembered hearing it on an LP we had in our house growing up, Trio with Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt, and Emmylou Harris. It turns out to be on the songs My Dear Companion and Wildflowers, the latter being a song I remember especially well.

And then there’s Keep on the Sunny Side from the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou?

In the process of filling out my playlist I discovered a few other things:

  • They Might Be Giants’ song Pencil Rain features autoharp quite splendidly
  • It appears in The Rolling Stones’s song Ride On, Baby (along with harpsichord!)
  • Neil Young used it in the song The Wayward Wind
  • George Harrison used it a bit in the song My Sweet Lord

And then exploring a bit further, I discovered that PJ Harvey developed a fondness for the instrument in the mid 2000s and used it extensively in her album Let England Shake.

And then I read repeatedly that Joni Mitchell played the instrument, but try as I might I could not find any songs that featured it. There were quite a few tracks that Internet people claimed featured autoharp, but when I listened to them they didn’t sound at all right, and when I found videos of her performing them she was always using an Appalachian dulcimer (quite a different instrument). Autoharp is listed as one of her instruments, but I still have yet to find a track or a video where she’s clearly playing it.

But continuing on my search I discovered that there’s another Canadian folk singer named Basia Bulat that some people see as the Joni Mitchell for my generation, and she plays autoharp in a lot of her music, giving her a nicely distinctive sound.

And then there’s something I probably knew but had forgotten, which is that the autoharp was a favourite instrument of the Carter family, especially mother Maybelle Carter. They are probably the most famous autoharp musicians of all and are credited with popularising the instrument. There’s a lovely track with autoharp on June Carter Cash’s Wildwood Flower that features Johnny Cash called Temptation. And there is a lovely video of them performing it. It’s also worth mentioning that the Carter family recording of Keep on the Sunny Side is even better than The Whites’ version from O Brother Where Art Thou? (it’s on the extended soundtrack album).

And apparently autoharp was a favoured instrument of John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, at which point I discovered an autoharp instrumental featuring him on a track by Eels called Dusk:A Peach in the Orchard.

There is also a video of Dolly Parton playing Coat of Many Colors on autoharp (apparently she’s no stranger to the instrument).

And there many videos of June Carter Cash playing autoharp, including one of her performing her husband’s song Ring of Fire on an autoharp. And then there’s a video of Sherly Crow covering June Carter Cash’s version of Ring of Fire with autoharp.

But the most amazing find in all of this was Janis Joplin. Apparently she started out her career performing with the autoharp, among other things, and while it seems like she dropped it in favour of the guitar by the time she became famous, I found two recordings of her playing autoharp on YouTube (audio only). One is supposedly the first known recording of Janis Joplin, which she made at a friend’s house in 1962: What Good Can Drinking Do?. But it’s the other recording that really blew me away—a song called So Sad to be Alone from 1965—this captured a certain sound from the autoharp that I didn’t even know the instrument was capable of, and it matches the melancholy of Janis Joplin’s singing perfectly.