SFC Spotlight: Mother Maybelle talks autoharp at Earl Scrugg’s House in 1962

Once again a researcher pointed the way to a fascinating item in the Southern Folklife Collection. While most of our attention has been on the fiddle as of late, I happily shifted focus to the autoharp (which we recently learned is also known as the “Idiot Zither”) when I digitized a tape recorded interview of Maybelle Carter, FT11829 from the Betty Blackley Collection (#20282).  Conducted September 9 and 10, 1962 by autoharp expert A. Doyle Moore and Archie Green at the home of Earl and Louise Scruggs Madison, TN, the interview offers an in-depth history of the Carter Family’s use of the autoharp and Mother Maybelle’s performance style on the instrument. In the following three clips, she describes her first encounters with the autoharp:

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The conversation continues, reflecting on her career, and eventually to her performance style. After locating the appropriate pick and finding an instrument with the correct tuning, she demonstrates with examples played on one of the multiple autoharps apparently always on hand in Earl and Louise Scruggs’s living room at any given time.  The first two clips lead up to the third, which is a wonderfully wobbly and vibrating version of “Gathering Flowers from the Hillside.” She goes on to demonstrate many other songs on side 2 of the tape. Definitely a treat on this gloomy Thursday afternoon. 

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