Friday, September 24, 2010

I also had one of these. I was a sort of (really super lame) one man band, as a kid. (The Best Underrated Instruments, 6)

You know what industry has suffered most at the hands of videogame makers? Jaw harp players.

I say that because while triangle players earn, on average, $56,000 per year playing an instrument which requires no rhythm or musical talent, Jaw Harp players have apparently gone the way of buggy whips and magic lantern shows and... um... other things that are old-timey.

I first learned about the jaw harp when I read Huck Finn. Or maybe I made that up, since I read Huck Finn a long time ago and I'm not sure what all I remember from that book and what I think I remember from that book, other than the scene where Huck dressed up a lady to sneak into town but then got caught out by that old lady who figured Huck was a boy because of the way he threaded the needle, bringing the needle to the thread instead of the thread to the needle. I gathered that Mark Twain wanted readers to think "Well, there's a clever old lady for you," but all I ever thought was "Really? She had no clue whatsoever that he's a grown-up guy instead of a young girl? What was wrong with old people back then?"

Also, I've always wondered why, when sewing, people don't tie the thread to the needle. When I first had to sew a button back onto a shirt, the thread kept slipping out of the needle, so I just tied it to the needle and sewed away, happily. And now that you know the secret, you can do that, too -- as long as you remember me as The Guy Who Revolutionized Sewing.

I'm pretty sure that Huck or Jim or someone had a jaw harp, or at least I'm pretty sure that someone in a book that reminded me of Huck Finn played a jaw harp, and it doesn't matter which is true because you're not going to check and I'm not going to check, so let's just say it's Huck Finn. (And don't bother correcting me about the actual title of the book, because by now Huck Finn is the title of the book the way the monster has become Frankenstein, rendering useless, but comical, those snobs who say "You know, Frankenstein was the doctor, not the monster. No, silly -- society has long since decreed that Frankenstein is now the monster, and now society [me] is decreeing the Huck Finn is the title of the book.) And I'm pretty sure that Huck, or Jim, or someone, called it a jew's harp, the way Wikipedia does, in a fit of antisemitism which it then tries to cover up by boldly making up fake names:

The instrument is known in many different cultures by many different names. The common English name "Jew's harp" may be considered controversial or potentially misleading, and thus avoided by some speakers. Another name used to identify the instrument, especially in scholarly literature, is the older English trump, while guimbarde, derived from the French word for the instrument, can be found in unabridged dictionaries and is featured in recent revival efforts.

There's no source given for the notion that anything, anywhere, at any time, has been called a guimbarde, and it's things like that that allow people like me to keep making fun of people who believe Wikipedia. And things like how Wikipedia sort of hints that Jewish people are satanic:

Since trances are facilitated by droning sounds,[3] the Jew's harp has been associated with magic and has been a common instrument in shamanic rituals.

Whatever it's actually called, it's clear that jaw harps are not very much in vogue anymore, a conclusion I came to scientifically by checking to see whether anyone anywhere on Youtube had covered a Lady GaGa song with one. There was no such video, proving conclusively that young people would rather play "Halo: Reach" than practice a jaw harp, a fact that was further proven conclusively by this video, which purports to be the Super Mario Bros theme played on the jaw harp:

And while some might say that the jaw harp's decline in popularity is directly related to the fact that it can only play one note and that anything played on it sounds exactly like everything else played on it, as can be proven by playing Bonanza on the jaw harp and comparing it to that Super Mario Bros version:

It's clear that playing only one note isn't fatal to an instrument's popularity -- because, remember, triangularists are raking in millions (well, theoretically)(but theoretical millions are better than no millions at all) while jaw harp players appear to be stuck in the last century:

And also stuck in a world where "dueling" is impossible to spell.

But it wasn't always so: Previously, the jaws harp was popular enough that Huck Finn (or Jim, etc.) would play it, and Snoopy actually played a jaw harp, doing so in Snoopy, Come Home, which, now that I come to think of it, may have been the place where I saw someone playing the jaw harp when I was younger... but, if so, it's best not to dwell on it, because it would give my high school English teacher, Mr. Schaeffer, a heart attack if he knew that I was confusing a cartoon with a classic work of literature.

Snoopy was even used to market jaw harps to kids, sort of a less-cancer-causing Joe Camel:

And from that picture I've also scientifically concluded that the jaw harp was featured in A Boy Named Charlie Brown, a motion picture I probably saw.

It's not that the jaw harp is totally dead. It has it's own blog -- called Boing! -- and that blog seems a lot more active than many blogs (17 posts!). The latest post was April 2, 2010 (not much happened in the world of jaw harpery over the summer, apparently, but maybe that's the offseason?) On the other hand, the blog was started back in 2007 with an almost word-for-word ripoff of the Wikipedia entry, so it would be fair to assume that there are not all that many jaw harp enthusiasts out there.

So why do I blame video game makers for the demise of the jaw harp? Two reasons. First, video game makers are to blame for everything, or at least for everything that we haven't yet blamed Obama for.

And, second, I've got to blame video game makers because it's pretty obvious that it's triangle players who are responsible for wiping out the competition in one-note, no talent musical instrument genres, but there's no way I'm going to take on Big Triangle again. I noticed a lot of weird things happening after my post making fun of them, things like how one day my Raisin Bran didn't seem to have all that many raisins in it, and then, on another day, when I went to McDonald's, I couldn't really hear the guy through the drive-through because there was a lot of static, and based on those two facts, I could only conclude that Big Triangle had started infiltrating my family to get to me, plotting their revenge, raising and static-style, as only they can. I barely survived my brush with Big Penguin, and I can't go around making these hush-hush, illuminati groups mad at me. So video-game makers it is, and I'm sorry, Big Triangle, and can I please have my raisins back?

Previous Instruments:

1. Tuba

2. Harp.

3. Triangle

4. Glockenspiel.

5. Bassoon

1 comment:

Envel said...


I'm french and I play jew's harp and I just found your blog at random. My name is Envel and I'm 25.

Just to let you know that even if the jew's harp traditions all over the world are not on their top level (maybe due to video game makers, interesting theory by the way :)there are still some really good players of it. You say, and it's true, that jew's harps only produce one key/sound. A sound produces by an instrument isn't just composed of one key. As a colour you see is composed of several basic colours, a sound is composed of several keys, called harmonics. I particularly like a website about mongolian throat-singing which explains it quite well with an "animated" sound (real-time spectrogram) :

I recognize that at first it's not easy to distinguish a melody,I began to understand it when I started playing.

Here are a few links for your curiousity :

You Tube ;) : (I found this one really funny, they imitate the frogs sound) (a chinese virtuoso who plays a special jew's harp with four reeds) (an indian player, just amazing !) (in the norvegian style) (to see very beautifull jew's harps)

To conclude by proudly claiming that jew's harpers not dead, a last link to an actual festival :

Have a good surf and take care, it's not because you can't see it that it doesn't exist (scientifically prooved ;)