MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
NPR's Paul Brown reports.
PAUL BROWN: Unidentified Woman: Hey Pa. What's the definition of perfect pitch?
BROWN: Okay, okay. I'm sorry. Give me a break. But now try to imagine an entire CD of autoharp music. You know what? In the right hands, this instrument is actually pretty good.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUTOHARP)
BROWN: That's Mike Seeger. Mike is a friend of mine. He's believed in the autoharp for a long time. We've played and recorded music together for years and years. He can tell you how the autoharp works as well as I can and probably better.
MIKE SEEGER: The basic idea is that you have all these different strings, kind of like a piano. But if you have something you can deaden certain strings and end up with a cord, then you have the autoharp.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUTOHARP)
SEEGER: Then you press the cord bar down and you get this.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUTOHARP)
BROWN: Door to door salesmen and mail order catalogs brought it into the Southern mountains around 1900. My mom got us one out of the Sears catalog when we were kids. She said it would be easy for all of us to play. Mike Seeger said he got into the autoharp as a kid because his mother played it. She was a composer and teacher. But then he laid it down because it didn't seem that interesting to just strum cords. Until -
SEEGER: About 1956 I heard a country music recording by the Wilburn Brothers that used the autoharp. I learned later it was by, the autoharp was played by Maybelle Carter of the original Carter family. And she played very simple melody on it and I said oh my gosh, I didn't know you could do that. And about the same time, I met Ernest Stoneman, Pop Stoneman, who'd been very active in the '20s also, just as Maybelle Carter had been with the Carter family.
ERNEST STONEMAN: All right. This is a number called "The Sweet Sunny South."
BROWN: So in 1957, a young, inquisitive Mike Seeger made this recording of Pop Stoneman at his home in Maryland.
SEEGER: He showed me how to play and told me of Kilby Snow, a great autoharp player down in his home territory of southwest Virginia.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SWEET SUNNY SOUTH")
STONEMAN: (Singing) Take me home to the place where I first saw the light. To the sweet sunny south take me home. Where the mockingbirds hum me to rest every night. Oh why would I (unintelligible).
BROWN: Now Mike Seeger felt there might be some sort of undocumented tradition of Southern autoharp playing if it had gone on long enough to be even called a tradition. He was on the trail from one player to another. He hit the road for the area around Galex, Virgina. He asked around and he finally found Kilby Snow on a construction job.
SEEGER: He was a very aimable person to talk to and it wasn't very hard for me to talk him into just taking a little break from laying block, and that's what he was doing, laying building block. And he played a tune and it was remarkable. I can't tell you. I'm sure that lots of folks have memories of hearing some life changing piece of music, well, that was for me. Kilby played the autoharp left handed and he could play single strings without having the cord bars down. He also had this device of approximating slurs, which are so popular in Southern music.
BROWN: Now when you say slurs, do you mean like slides, blues type figures? Blues type sounds?
SEEGER: Absolutely. By having the bar up and playing some of the strings open, you can approximate some of those slides and slurs that really give the feeling of southern music.
BROWN: Kilby Snow did that on "May I Sleep In Your Barn Tonight, Mister."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAY I SLEEP IN YOUR BARN TONIGHT, MISTER")
BROWN: Continuing his quest, Mike Seeger ran into a young autoharp player named Kenneth Benfield at a fiddler's convention in North Carolina. Not long after, Mike recorded Kenneth and his father Noria(ph) at their home.
SEEGER: Kenneth and Noria used it for instrumental music, just as somebody would have used a fiddle or a banjo. Everything from sentimental songs from the late 19th century up to whatever they would hear on the radio.
BROWN: Here are the father and son Noria and Kenneth Benfield playing "Weeping Willow Tree."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEEPING WILLOW TREE")
BROWN: Mike Seeger told me he met quite a few other players over the years and he wishes he'd recorded more of them. But he's glad he got to the people he did. He said they were strong musicians. They dug in, is the way he put it. They took an instrument that most people used for accompaniment and brought it straight out front.
SEEGER: It was good music on its own. It was a significant corner of Southern traditional music. I don't know of a single recording in the Library of Congress archives of autoharp melody playing other than the ones I've made.
BROWN: For NPR News, I'm Paul Brown.
NORRIS: You can hear more music from the "Masters of Old Time Country Autoharp" and see photos of them at NPR.org.
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