Learning to play Jew’s harp not for faint of heart

A metal Jew’s harp beside a pair of bamboo Jew’s harps from Papua New Guinea.

At the first of August, a friend presented me with a brand-new Jew’s harp and an ultimatum: “You’ve got 25 days to learn it.”

He was referring to Aug. 25, when the church I attend, Enterprise Baptist, would hold its monthly singing, and our bluegrass-gospel group, the Gully Jumpers, performs.

In other words, my friend expected a performance on the Jew’s harp.

Problem was, I’d never played one in my life other than messing around with one as a kid.

A Jew’s harp — also called juice harp, mouth harp and jaw harp, among other names — consists of a small frame with a vibrating strip in the middle. The idea is you clamp it in your mouth and pluck the tip of the strip to get the distinctive “dwoing dwoing dwoing.”

It’s a sound that conjures up old times. Like Tom Sawyer lounging under a tree, or Huckleberry Finn floating on a raft. Maybe a moonshiner playing one while his sour mash bubbles.

But I didn’t even know which end to put in my mouth.

Nor did I know anyone to ask, so I turned to the Internet. I glanced at an instructional video and figured I could take it from there.

Wrong.

The video showed the player holding the narrow end in his mouth and plucking the end of the strip. I tried that and got about as much sound as thumping a rubber band.

When I demonstrated my technique to my fellow musicians, they were profoundly underwhelmed. Murray Reynolds, who plays guitar and sings in the Gully Jumpers, threatened to bring a comb and wax paper to blow on if I kept it up.

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But I had an ultimatum, so I did a trial run when the Gully Jumpers played at a senior citizens lunch at Tangipahoa Baptist Church in Amite County. I got a mild round of applause, more out of sympathy than admiration, I suspect.

“Keep it up. You’ll get it,” one man said encouragingly.

I went back to the Internet and found where I’d been going wrong. You don’t hold the harp with your lips, you clamp it between your teeth.

Ouch!

Metal on teeth, not so smart. Internet sites even warn against chipping teeth.

I quickly figured out why. If you don’t hold it just so and pluck it oh so gently, the metal can bounce loose and rebound against your teeth. It could crack the enamel or chip off an edge.

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So I slowed down, backed off and regrouped. I can play various stringed instruments, even the harmonica. Surely I wouldn’t be defeated by a simple Jew’s harp!

The instrument, if you can call it that, dates back to antiquity and appears in many cultures. The origins of the name “Jew’s harp” remain obscure.

In the 1980s when I visited Papua New Guinea, I discovered that tribal people there love a Jew’s harp, only theirs is made of bamboo instead of metal. It makes a similar haunting sound but without the metallic twang. Many people wear a pair of them around their neck joined by a twisted bark string.

I’ll never forget being in a hut by a flickering fire on a rainy night, days from civilization, as a man wearing a loincloth and a bone in his nose plucked a bamboo Jew’s harp, creating a sound that seemed to date to the dawn of time.

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So I stuck with it. I played along on my Jew’s harp when listening to bluegrass music on the radio, slowly learning how to hold it gently but firmly between my teeth and pluck it softly.

Further research showed that, as with so many obscure topics, there’s a whole world of people passionately involved in it. There’s an International Jew’s Harp Society, North American Jaw Harpists association, Jew’s Harp Guild, Jew’s harp orchestra and Jew’s harp choir. The Jew’s harp figures in bluegrass, rock-n-roll, movie sound tracks and folk songs around the world.

All I wanted to do was make it through a couple of songs with the Gully Jumpers without breaking my teeth.

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The big night rolled around, Aug. 25 — last Sunday. We had a big crowd at Enterprise Baptist Church, including of course the gentleman who had given me the Jew’s harp.

When the Gully Jumpers’ time came to perform, we started out with “Working on a Building,” in which each member alternates singing a verse. I sang, “If I had a Jew’s harp, I tell you what I’d do.” Then I finished the verse with a series of “dwoings.”

On the next song, “This World Is Not My Home,” I got ready to do a riff on the Jew’s harp when Murray Reynolds slung his guitar back and produced a comb with a piece of wax paper, which produces a buzzing noise. We wound up doing a duet, like a mosquito singing with a bumblebee.

I put the harp away until our final song, “I’ll Fly Away,” when lead singer James Toler suggested I try it one more time. I did, and when I finished the riff, I got the biggest applause yet, along with a thumb’s-up from my benefactor.

After the concert, though, a woman who works in a dentist’s office asked my wife: “What’s that thing doing to his teeth?”

Such are the ups and downs of a Jew’s harpist.

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