Sunday, July 7, 2013

Autoharp: Daniel and the Sacred Harp

Being the second week of the month, it’s time for our second week special and this week we look at the autoharp as the glue that holds this week together. An autoharp is a chorded zither. While other companies made chorded zithers, the name autoharp was once a trademark of the Oscar Schmidt Company. The bars on the autoharp allow certain strings to be dampened and other strings to ring clear giving a unique harp-like effect. The dampened strings create a percussive sound that adds to the instrument’s charm.

The autoharp can be played by laying it on your lap or holding it upright and strummed. Strumming can be done with a flat pick or with a thumb pick and finger picks. Some just strum the instruments to provide chord accompaniment, some play chord melodies, while others might finger pick the strings.

Our first song comes from the 1970 album “Stage Fright” by The Band. While it draws from a few biblical references, “Daniel and the Sacred Harp” is not a religious song. Written by Robbie Robertson and sung by Levon Helm and Richard Manuel, “Daniel and the Sacred Harp” includes some unique instrumentation – including the autoharp provided by Robertson.

You can definitely hear Robertson's autoharp on the song’s bridge, but I believe it is also the rhythm instrument during the rest of the song. As for the other members of The Band, Rick Danko plays fiddle in addition to bass. It also appears that Garth Hudson is playing a pump organ. Besides the autoharp, Robertson also provides the electric slide guitar.

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