"A very small musical instrument"1
On advice from John Hay, the postmaster at Cahokia (in Illinois) who had helped the captains in numerous ways to prepare for their journey, the Corps' extensive inventory of gifts was packed in twenty-one separate bags, which in turn were separated into two categories. One consisted of gifts for Indians between St. Charles and the Mandan villages, the other, gifts for "foreign Nations: that is, those beyond the mandanes." One of the bags in the first set included "1/2 doz. Jews harps" to be given "to young men," and one in the latter, "6 Dos. Jews harps."
On August 30, 1804, Private Joseph Whitehouse recorded the expedition's meeting with the congenial Yankton Sioux:
They put all the presents that they got, together, and divided them among their whole party equally. The Indians after the goods were divided, was very merry; they play'd on the Jews harps & danced for us for Beads that we gave them. They behaved well to us.
That was the one and only time any journalist mentioned the noun that Noah Webster, in his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, of 1806, defined simply as "a very small musical instrument."
The most common form consists of a flexible tongue, or lamella, attached at one end to a lyre-shaped frame that is held against the player's teeth with one hand, while the lamella is set in vibration with the other.2 It produces just one fundamental pitch, whose successive overtones are amplified variously when the back of the player's tongue is moved back and forth, changing the size and shape of the oral cavity. Thus all the pitches of a diatonic scale are present, but not in consecutive order, and some are slightly out of tune.
Nontheless, the jews harp is a simple instrument in principle, but it is by no means primitive. It is a product of precision engineering—in Lewis and Clark's day, precision blacksmithing—and considerable practice is required for a performer to control its maximum potential for variety in pitch, timbre, loudness, and rhythm, to play a recognizable tune. From the mid-18th through the mid-19th centuries there were a number of jews harp virtuosos in Europe, the last being the celebrated Eulenstein, who played fairly elaborate pieces using 16 instruments tuned to 16 different fundamental pitches. Since the early 1980s there has been a resurgence of interest in "mouth music" in the United States and Europe.
Although it was common in nearly all European and Asian cultures from the early Middle Ages on, there is no archaeological evidence that the instrument as we know it now ever existed in North America, South America, or Africa, until, beginning in the 17th century, jews harps began to be used as trade goods, and were thereby introduced into North America.
The jews harp was extremely popular as a children's toy in the United States around the turn of the 19th century, and Lewis and Clark may have included it among their Indian gifts because they guessed it would appeal to Indian kids too. On the other hand, traders may have told the captains that the jews-harp fad had already caught the fancy of Indian youths. But there is no evidence in the journals that the men of the Corps ever played jews harps themselves, even though the bales of gifts evidently held six and one-half dozen of them.
A jews harp (length, 3.5 in.; 8.9 cm)3 in a tambourine (dia. 8.25 in.; 21 cm) made of calf-skin over a plywood hoop.
The name by which this little instrument is known in Britain and the U.S. poses one of the oldest and most nagging questions in musical nomenclature, and to some people an embarassing one.
Musicologists have found no connection whatsoever between it and any aspect of Jewish culture, musical or otherwise. It could well be a loose cognate for any one of a number of non-English words. In French it is a guimbarde, a colloquial expression that once meant "rickety old coach," or "boneshaker." In Holland it's a jeugd harp, or "youth's harp." In Northumberland on the Scottish border, it's a gewgaw, (pron. GYOO-gaw, or JOO-gaw), meaning "a cheap trinket"; the Norwegian equivalent is jugil. In German it's a Brummeisen ("rumble-iron") or Maultrommel ("mouth-drum"). In Spanish it's a trompa ("horn"). Jaws harp and juice harp have emerged in recent years as euphemisms. To confuse musical onomastics even further, when a folk musician today speaks of a harp, it is not in reference to an Irish harp, nor even to a jews harp, but to a harmonica.
So, we're evidently stuck with the same name by which Lewis and Clark knew this "very small musical instrument." Short of switching to one of its many other common names, the simplest alternative is to drop the capital j, and skip the apostrophe—jews harp. Unfortunately, that expedient fails to change the erroneous connotation of the name—Jew's harp. In Europe it's simply called a j-harp.
1. Noah Webster, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806; Facsimile, New York: Crown Publishers, 1970), s.v. "Jews-harp."
2. The Latin word lamella, meaning "a thin plate," comes from the science of biology. On January 24, 1806, Meriwether Lewis used it in describing the root of common liquorice.
3. Elijah Criswell claims: "It is well known that the Jew's harp bears a close resemblance to the human larynx." No such comparison is to be found in any of the standard histories of musical instruments, and the one has neither an anatomical nor an etymological connection with the other. See Rattle Riddle.