Homegrown Music: Rebirth of the Irish Harp

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Robin Williamson's albums are a good source for Irish traditional music, as well as for folk music of practically any persuasion.
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The earliest harps were strung with metal wire, and those who played them were, at one time, highly honored members of Irish and Scottish society.

Irish music has played an important role in the American folk scene over the past few years, so it’s only natural that the folk harp (a freestanding “bow” instrument, usually about three feet tall) would come into its own on this side of the Atlantic. Today, most folk harp activity is taking place along the West Coast, the home of several people who manufacture — and make music on — the Irish instruments. I’d like to tell you about some of the organizations and individuals behind this movement.

A good place to start is Lark in the Morning. This firm’s interesting catalog opens with a section devoted solely to harps. Of course, the publication lists many other music-makers as well — including such hard-to find instruments as concertinas, button accordions, bagpipes, hurdy-gurdies, and hammered dulcimers — in addition to instruction books, records, accessories, and such.

The good folks at Lark also sponsor a summer music camp that might interest those of you who are — or could be — in California. It offers personal workshop instruction on the Irish harp . . . and just about any other instrument typical of Irish music. Lark also conducts seminars on specific instruments at various times of the year.

Next, although some of their products are sold through Lark, I’d like to mention a husband-and-wife musical team hailing from my neck of the woods: Philip and Pam Boulding, who run an outfit called Magical Strings. The Bouldings manufacture both Irish harps and hammered dulcimers (they’ll send you a free brochure and price list upon request), and make mighty fine music on them, too.

Before we go any further with the subject of Irish music, though, I’d like to stop and pay tribute to the Irish musician: Turlough O’Carolan, a blind minstrel who lived from 1670 to 1738 and composed hundreds of songs for the harp during his lifetime. Most of his lyrics have been lost, but his melodies live on. So influential was O’Carolan’s work, in fact, that Ireland has bestowed on him the title of National Composer.

The earliest harps were strung with metal wire, and those who played them — called “harpers” — were at one time highly honored members of Irish and Scottish society. But as a result of successive waves of foreign culture invasions, the harpers gradually lost their social status and were reduced to serving as court entertainers or becoming wandering street musicians. As such, Turlough O’Carolan roamed the country, composing songs often named for his various benefactors. (This custom of “plugging the hand that feeds thee” was widely practiced by the writers and artists of yesteryear . . . including William Shakespeare.)

Of course, there are also many talented contemporary writers and performers of Irish tunes. And one of the best of the bunch is Sylvia Woods, the first American ever to win the all-Ireland harp championships (in 1980). The series of compositions in her album, “The Harp of Brandiswhiere”, are based on the legend of the harper Brandiswhiere and his apprentice (and lover) Telena, who live on a magic island. When an evil sorcerer conspires to destroy the island’s beauty and manages to capture Telena in a “gypsy mirage”, a battle ensues . . . but in the end, the music of the harper prevails over the spell maker’s evil power. The compositions on this album feature arrangements that call upon instruments as varied as the harp, flute, cimbalom, bass, trumpet, celesta . . . and even wind chimes. Overall, the music is serene, and the story is certainly captivating.

Then again, those of you who can’t make it to California next summer for that Lark in the Morning harp workshop might be glad to know that Ms. Woods has written a book that’s packed full of information on learning how to play the harp. It’s called, appropriately enough, Teach Yourself How to Play the Folk Harp, and opens with a bit of history, followed by basic instruction on how to hold the instrument. Next, the reader is guided through a series of practice exercises and increasingly complex tunes. The book also contains useful information about harp tuning, replacing strings, and care of the instrument. The songs Ms. Woods has selected to accompany the instructions are mostly familiar ones that come to us from a variety of sources . . . including popular, classic, and Irish folk. (There are even a couple of O’Carolan com positions in this fine self-instruction manual.)

Yet another worthwhile collection of harp tunes is found on Melissa Morgan’s album, “Erin’s Harp”. Melissa plays Irish, Celtic, and pedal harp, and is accompanied by Jonathan Parker (on dulcimer) and Neal Hellman (on guitar). Many of the compositions here are O’Carolan’s, although the disk includes traditional folk tunes by other writers, too. Ms. Morgan’s album is available from Kicking Mule Records.

Melissa also offers cassette tapes of her original music — much of which shimmers with ethereal beauty — and self-instruction materials for the harp.

The final album I’ll mention here — which isn’t strictly confined to the harp, and draws upon the voices of other instruments, as well as vocals — is Robin Williamson’s “Songs of Love and Parting”. Each of the tunes in this enjoyable collection is a Williamson original, and all are traditional folk renditions. For me, the finest of the batch is a piece entitled “For Mr. Thomas”, inspired by the works of Dylan Thomas, the famous Welsh poet. Williamson first heard Thomas’s Under MilkWood at the age of nine, and later remarked that the words held his attention as if he’d been locked in the grip of a vise. Well, the song-poems Mr. Williamson cut for this album had the same effect on me.

Robin may be familiar to some of you as a result of his earlier work with The Incredible String Band (which he helped found)… and/or through the Merry Band (in which Sylvia Woods was also a player). Williamson’s album is available from Flying Fish Records . . . a good source for Irish traditional music, as well as for folk music of practically any persuasion. Happy harping!