The autoharp was invented in Germany in the mid- to late 19th century.
Ernest "Pop" Stoneman, pictured in 1961, was the first to record country music with the autoharp.
Neriah and Kenneth Benfield are shown in 1964, around the time of their first and only public performance at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island.
Neriah and Kenneth Benfield are shown in 1964, around the time of their first and only public performance at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. Mike Seeger
Kilby Snow, shown in 1961, was able to coax "slurs" — slides and blues-type sounds — from his autoharp.
Kilby Snow, shown in 1961, was able to coax "slurs" — slides and blues-type sounds — from his autoharp. Mike Seeger
Most people's experiences with the autoharp begin and end with grade school sing-a-longs.
But in the 1950s, a man named Mike Seeger proved that you can play real music on the small, 36-string instrument.
Seeger collected the music of Southern autoharp players and released it on an album in 1961. The collection surprised many people at the time and led other musicians to take up the instrument.
What Seeger couldn't fit on the recording sat on a shelf for 45 years, until now. Masters of Old-Time Country Autoharp, an expanded version of that original album with previously unreleased tracks, is now out on CD.
Seeger's mother introduced him to the autoharp when he was a child. But he soon lost interest in the instrument because it wasn't that interesting to him to just strum chords, which is mostly what playing the autoharp entails.
An autoharp's bars "deaden" certain strings. As a result, if you press the C-chord bar, for example, you get a C-chord.
But around 1956, Seeger's interest in the autoharp was reignited. He heard a recording featuring Maybelle Carter on the autoharp, playing a simple melody.
"I said, 'Oh my gosh, I didn't know you could do that,'" Seeger recalls.
Soon afterward, Seeger met Ernest "Pop" Stoneman. It was meeting Stoneman that gave Seeger the idea that there might be an undocumented tradition of Southern autoharp playing.
Seeger began recording autoharp players up and down the East Coast. He met Kenneth Benfield at a fiddlers' convention in North Carolina and recorded him and his father, Neriah, at their home.
Seeger also tracked down Kilby Snow in Galax, Va., and recalls hearing him play: "He played a tune and it was remarkable. I'm sure that lots of folks there have memories of hearing some life-changing piece of music. Well, that was for me."
Snow was even able to coax "slurs" from his autoharp, something like slides and blues-type sounds, popular in Southern music.
Over the years, Seeger met quite a few other players and wishes he had recorded more of them. But he's glad he got the opportunity to record the people he did: These masters of old-time country autoharp took an instrument that most people used for accompaniment and brought it straight out front.