Monday, March 28, 2011

Ozark Juice-Harp

I remember one of my first musical instruments while growing up in the Ozarks.

When I was about 7 years old, and my family and I went to West Plains, Missouri, for a day. While there, we stopped by the West Plains Music Store. As my dad was looking over a selection of harmonicas, an older gentleman behind the counter spied me looking though a glass case. Peering over his glasses, he made a sales pitch by stating that I needed to start my musical career with an instrument I could master quickly.  His answer…a “Juice-harp.”

I was quickly sold on the idea, and my dad made the purchase. I popped and twanged that twisted piece of lead all the way home. In my mind, I could play any song. It took a little skill in arching my mouth the right way or to keep from pinching my lips.

It was a few years later till I found out it was really called a “Jew’s-harp.” You see, I reasoned in my mind, that since it was played by opening my mouth in different positions, it was an instrument that could be easily covered with spit. Hence, I called it a “Juice-harp.” It just made sense. In Ozark twang & vernacular, “Jew’s-harp” & “Juice-harp” sounds pretty close to being the same word.

To this day…I still think the music store man called it a “Juice-harp.”

In the following article, there is a wonderfully example of Ozark twang & dialect. I have transcribed the article exactly…word for word & letter for letter. I hope you have fun translating the 5th paragraph... as it is a part of our Ozarks’ History


The sun had just broken over the tops of the Ozarks one warm morning in summer. The mist that always settles thickly over these half mountains with the night all, was going to pieces and disappearing as the sun rose higher, leaving the green and dense verdure heavy and wet with the dew. In a cosy nook, on a log, overhanging the wild little stream that dashed down from a gushing spring above, a native was seated, earnestly playing a jewsharp. He twanged the vibrant metal with his thumb, keeping time by splashing one of his bare feet in the clear water below. After ten minutes, during which time the sun bad got high enough to shine straight in his eyes, he took the harp from his month and, wiping it on the leg of his trousers, exclaimed: "Thar!  Ef thet don' settl'r, whut will? "

Before he had spoken another word a stranger stepped from behind a big tree and addressed him: "That was the best tune I ever heard on one of those instruments."

The mountaineer looked at the stranger a moment and then, drawing himself up in a knot on the log, said: "Dye mean it, mister?"

"Mean it? Of course. "Why do you ask?"

"It's lak this, mister. Yer see, I hev be'n jest on the aige o' jinin' th' Simpson gal, over 'n th' holler, fer more'n er yar, an' when th' poppin' time kem, she up an' says thet I kain't hev 'er 'less I kin play thcr jews'a'p. I bin practicin' hyar on this log ier nigh a month now, I reckon, ev'ry day in th' mornin' 'ore sunup, an' I wuz thinki n' es I sot hyar, ez ei I didn't git th' bang o' it purty soon, it'd be gooilby, Sal. But yer made me feel better, stranger, an' ef yer roun' these parts nex' week, jes drop over on ther slope, 'crost th' way, an' ye kin be my best man."

As the stranger moved on down the path, the mountaineer struck up his tune again and played with a vim that was evidence that the stranger had been telling the truth. Along with the fiddle, the jewsharp still ranks high as a musical instrument (in the mountain region of Arkansas and Missouri. A native who can't play the jewsharp is looked upon as having very poor prospects.

Work Cited:
“Our Short Stories: Wooing a Maiden of the Ozarks With the Jewsharp's Notes. “ Pittsburg Dispatch  45.205  (31 Aug., 1890) 14. Chronicling America. The Library of Congress, Washington, D. C. 11 Jan. 2008 

1 comment:

pens and needles said...

I enjoy each and every one of your posts, Vince. So glad you have the opportunity to dig up these pieces of Ozarks' lore and share them with us.