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SEM Annual Conference, Albuquerque

  • University of New Mexico USA (map)

I am presenting a paper entitled "A Mere Boy's Play-Thing: Gender, Children, and the Jew's Harp."


Due to the range of cultures in which it is found, there is incredible richness and variety in jew’s harp traditions. At the same time, the instrument has not received much scholarly attention and has frequently been referred to as technically or musically deficient. Prior to the twenty-first century, jew’s harps were mass produced at centres in Britain, Ireland, Austria, and Northern Italy and that the numbers were in the millions, a fact that no doubt contributed to the pervasive notion that the jew’s harp was merely a cheap trinket, best suited to children. The connection between the jew’s harp and children, particularly boys, has endured; in Norway and Austria, mass-produced jew’s harps were at the centre of youth-based revivals in the 1950s and 60s. The jew’s harp was chosen as the symbol of the 1952 Boy Scout Jamboree in Austria, symbolizing a return to simplicity in the aftermath of the Second World War. A few years later, Norwegian music shops of the 1960s struggled to keep jew’s harps in stock after an adolescent musician played one on a youth television show. I show how children’s television has been a major conduit for the jew’s harp’s image in popular culture, and how large-scale manufacturers continue to mass produce brightly coloured jew’s harps today, aimed at young people and amateur players. I argue that these associations have contributed to the still widespread belief that it is easy to play, and discuss its ongoing marginalisation within musical discourse.