Autoharp Music from Carroll County – Virginia USA,
Missouri and Mexico
Some of the first autoharps produced in America were simple 3, 4, and 5 plain bar models. These instruments were made in Philadelphia, in the shop of German-born American C.F.
Zimmermann, who in 1882 obtained an American patent for an attachment he claimed was “an improved method for playing a harp”. The total package, a zither-or harp-like instrument outfitted with this gizmo, was referred to as an “autoharp”. However, both the instrument and more importantly the bar action pictured and described in the patent differ significantly in form from the autoharp as we know it. The body shape is symmetrical, and the felt-bearing bars that silence certain strings move horizontally, rather than vertically.
Though the date of British patent is not given in the article, it appears by two items within the text to have been granted in 1883 or 1884. Though Zimmermann’s patent predates this one, a couple of points need to be kept in mind: * Zimmermann’s 1882 patent did not represent the instrument now known as an autoharp. *The patent grantee was German, the patent was British; it seems likely that an earlier patent was granted in his home country, but as the article explains, it is very unlikely that any record of it will ever be found.
So how do we get from Zimmermann being granted a patent for an instrument that is not the autoharp as we know it (1882) to Zimmermann beginning production of the autoharp as we know it (c. 1885), for which a British patent had been granted to a German inventor in 1883 or 1884?
Both the German instrument and the one featured in Zimmermann’s patent are small zither-type instruments which make chords by muting certain strings, and which do so by means of manipulating wooden bars with blocks of felt attached to them. It appears that Zimmermann saw the German instrument before he applied for the 1882 patent. Otherwise, we have to believe that two such instruments were invented independently of each other and within a couple of years apart in the course of all history. It seems certain that the action of the instrument in Zimmermann’s patent would have been functionally inferior to that of the
German instrument. In the years from 1882, when the first patent was granted, to about 1885, when production actually began, it seems likely that Zimmermann realized his patent instrument was a failure, that he experimented with trying to improve on it, but that he eventually gave up and began production of the German instrument in unaltered form before some other enterprising American did. However, it appears he was reluctant to totally abandon his horizontal approach to muting strings and that he had also experimented with incorporating the idea into the design of the German instrument as an improvement. The result was the addition of “shifters” to the chord bars.
These shifters allow each chord bar to produce more than one chord. They do so by means of manipulating metal tabs attached to the bars, which cause a separate set of felt blocks to move horizontally, muting and un-muting certain strings. The shifters appeared very early on; examples of all shifter bar models bearing appointments of the very first type are known. This suggests that Zimermann’s experiments with them probably began sometime before the commencement of American autoharp production. C.F. Zimmermann Company, Dolgeville, New York, 1893-99, later Zimmermann Autoharp Company
Around 1893, the autoharp factory moved to Dolgeville, New York. It was bought by Alfred Dolge, another German-born American who had established himself as a piano parts manufacturer, beginning under the tutlelage of Frederick Mathushek (yet another German-born American) in New Haven, Connecticut. It was at the Dolgeville factory that the autoharp first donned its now-familiar cloak of black. The Philadelphia location had been a productive one; a booklet from around 1889 states that “50,000 have been sold in the first three years following its introduction”. The autoharp’s second home, the Dolgeville factory, was even more productive.
As a result, 19th century instruments are abundant enough that examples in fine structural, functional, and cosmetic condition are still to be found. By way of example, here is a Dolgeville No. 2 3/4 from the 1890s, after proper cleaning and new strings. Some of the most imaginitive decals ever to adorn autoharps were of Dolgeville birth, and the firm reached the height of functional refinement for the time with the “concert grand” and “parlor grand” models. Though extremely productive, the company enjoyed a very short lifespan of only about 6 years. Undaunted, Dolge relocated to California, and by the time he published his amazingly informative Pianos and Their Makers in 1911, we find him re-established and for all appearances once again thriving as a piano parts manufacturer.
( Courtesy of Dolgeville, New York)
PIONEERS OF THE AUTOHARP
Ernest Van “Pop” Stoneman
American Country Music Pioneer
May 25, 1893 – June 14, 1968
Music shaped his life, and subsequently his life indelibly shaped our American musical heritage.
Pop Stoneman’s father was a lay preacher, his mother, a singer. His cousins, uncles, and brothers enjoyed sharing music with their family and friends. During his teens, he joined his family gatherings, playing every instrument he could get his hands on. He was drawn to the autoharp, and because he couldn’t afford to order one from the Montgomery Ward catalogue, Pop built his own using parts of an old piano.
During his early life, he found work wherever he could – as a farm hand, a carpenter, and a sweeper in a cotton mill in Fries, Virginia. As always throughout his life, however, his main interest was music.
Pop met and married Hattie Frost, whose father was a luthier, fiddler, and banjo player. Bill Frost had taught his daughter Hattie to play the banjo and fiddle. She became a fine musician in her own right. Pop and Hattie were the parents of 23 children, 13 of whom survived to adulthood.
Wlile working at the Fries mill, a friend of his had a “home recording machine,” and in 1914, Pop recorded a tune on this machine with a harmonica and his autoharp. That experience changed his life forever.
Pop’s first commercial recording, a song he wrote called “The Sinking of the Titanic,” was made in New York City on September 1924. It quickly became number three on the Billboard/Variety charts, and remained there for ten weeks. This solo recording sold over one million copies.
From 1924 through 1929, Pop recorded well over 200 songs under many names and on many labels. In 1927, he was under contract with Ralph Peer, Recording Director for the Victor Talking Machine Company Pop knew there was talent in the Bristol, Tennessee area, and was greatly responsible for Mr. Peer setting up the famous Bristol Recording Sessions. This historical session has been dubbed the “Big Bang of Country Music.” Pop and Hattie were the first to record at Bristol, and on subsequent days, The Original Carter Family (A. P., Sara, and Maybelle Carter), and Mississippi Yodler Jimmie Rogers made their nationally commercial debuts.
After being a solo artist, Pop began to include his wife and adult family members in his performances. In 1930, he brought their children into the musical arena, thus making the Stoneman name the longest continuously active name in country music.
Pop’s professional musical career was a long one, dating from his first recording in 1924 to his death at age 75.
The Original Stoneman Family
Pop and Hattie Stoneman’s children were born musicians. Every member of the family has made recordings, many under labels such as MGM and RCA Victor, and most have performed in the most prestigious venues. They had no musical training, but when their names are mentioned in the country music circles, e.g. – Donna, mandolin; Roni, banjo; Scott, fiddle; Gene, guitar; Jim, bass they are legendary. The family first appeared nationally on the “Jimmy Dean TV Variety Show.” “The Grand Ole Opry” followed in 1962, and in 1966, they hosted their own syndicated television series “Those Stonemans.” In 1967, The Stoneman Family was presented the first CMA Award as Vocal Group of the Year. They have participated in two motion pictures, have been nominated four additional times to the CMA Award presentations and several CMA nominations for Instrumental Group of the Year, and have traveled Europe extensively. Pop and Hattie’s family has also made hundreds upon hundreds of professional recordings.
Because the family is so large and the music interest varied among its members, they frequently broke into “band segments.” At times there were as many as five or six family bands performing throughout the country simultaneously. The picture below is one such group.
For further information concerning The Stoneman Family, or to order recorded Stoneman music and/or “The Stonemans,” an awardwinning book by Ivan M. Tribe, contact: Patsy Stoneman Murphy, PO Box 17044, Nashville, TN 37217
(courtesy of ortheyautoharps)
(Documentary Audio with collaborative support of NPR-America
and The North American Autoharp Society)