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BFE Annual Conference, Newcastle

  • University of Newcastle UK (map)

I am presenting a paper entitled "Unworthy Objects: The jew’s harp and discourses of value in European Music." Also presented at the Northwest Chapter Conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology, Bellingham, March 3.


The jew’s harp has, at various times, been one of the most popular musical instruments in Europe. First appearing on the continent in the thirteenth century (Kolltveit 2006), it has undergone several centuries of mass production, and is currently experiencing a global revival. At the same time, the instrument has long been seen as an object of little value. In this paper, I use the jew’s harp’s peripheral position to examine issues of labour, leisure, productivity, and waste, and to explore how musical instruments reflect changing tastes, technologies, and social identities. I begin by exploring the pervasive notion that the jew’s harp was merely a cheap trinket, best suited to children. I then examine the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century phenomenon of the jew’s harp “virtuoso” in Europe. Though the instrument’s transgression as a worthy object was brief, I argue that it gets to the heart of enduring prejudices about musical value, virtuosity, and productivity. Moving to contemporary ethnographic contexts, I draw on multi-sited fieldwork in Europe to examine how the isolation of jew’s harp players and makers across the globe has changed radically in the digital age. The marginalisation of the instrument has now given way to inclusive transnational communities, but its longstanding association with unproductive activity remains. It is precisely the jew’s harp’s unworthiness, I conclude, that hides it in plain sight at the very centre of European musical discourse.