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New York Folklore Quarterly, Vol. XIX, No. 4, December 1963

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NEW YORK FOLKLORE QUARTERLY
Vol. XIX, No. 4, December, 1963

THE AUTOHARP: ITS ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT
FROM A POPULAR TO A FOLK INSTRUMENT
A. Doyle Moore

“BE IT known that I, Charles F. Zimmermann...have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Harps....A harp so provided has the size of a zither, and which I term an ‘autoharp,’ and the manner in which the instrument is played is entirely new.” These words were contained in the inventor’s patent application, (257,808) filed on December 10, 1881. He had coined the new instrument’s name while perfecting his models and drawings. Although Zimmermann’s autoharp and its successors have been manufactured continuously for nearly 80 years and have been much used by folk musicians in the Southern Highlands for half a century, it has not been described, historically or stylistically, in academic journals. My personal curiosity as to the autoharp’s technical development and folk role came after I learned to play. The paucity ot recent literature on the instrument led me to its present site of production, Jersey City, New Jersey, and from there back by stages to the home of its gifted creator.

Charles Zimmermann had worked at many jobs in the 48 years before he came to Philadelphia from Germany in 1865. Here he joined his brother in the musical instrument sales and repair business and here he became a United States citizen. All his jobs in the old country had been in the music field where he had successfully improved the mechanical function of the accordion. Zimmermann’s dedication to the accordion, he was to write in later years, followed the acclamation accorded him and his dance music by Danzig newspapers. He now determined to build a bigger instrument. Working with the mechanical production of notes and chords gave Zimmermann an insight into music that led him to establish a number system of notation. He vowed that music was of divine origin, but its divinity could not reach out to the notation system regularly used.
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