Thursday, 14 March 2013

Gargrave: Autoharp Capital of the North 2

This little article will appear in the Gargrave Village Magazine, April 2013 issue - part of the countdown to the Gargrave Autoharp Festival.

Like the article for Autoharp Notes it was rewritten at the last minute when we heard about our successful Arts Council bid.

Some might object that Mother Maybelle Carter got the idea of hugging the Autoharp from Cecil Null.  But note that I say that she is 'usually credited'...

To to show willing I have put in a picture of Cecil Null, hugging, below my text.


Gargrave:  Autoharp Capital of the North

Gargrave Autoharp Festival
Gargrave Village Hall and environs
Friday May 31, Saturday June 1, Sunday June 2, 2013

The autoharp is one of those nineteenth century ‘parlour instruments’, developed when our ancestors wanted to make music at home – when they began to have a little more leisure, and have parlours.  We can think of the mass produced piano or the violin as ‘parlour instruments’, or the reed instruments, like the concertina and the accordion.  Very often a parlour instrument would have some special feature to help the amateur musician.  On the autoharp the special feature actually works.  The autoharp is a shallow box with stretched strings, like a zither.  The autoharp has a series of chord bars.  You press a button, the chord bar comes down – and it silences the strings that you do NOT want.  You play a chord.  Then you play another chord.  And you are making music.

A fun thing nowadays is go to Google Patents, and chart the attempts to change and improve the autoharp over the century.  The autoharp travelled to the United States – where the Oscar Schmidt company became the main seller and developer.  At one point Oscar Schmidt had a contract to supply US schools – you can see that the autoharp will work, in small schools, to support children singing.  American schools keep finding autoharps in the backs of cupboards – they put them on Ebay.

In the USA the availability of the autoharp meant that it became a kind of folk instrument, particularly associated with Appalachian country music and with bluegrass.  The Carter Family used an autoharp in their line up – you can now see the original performances on Youtube.  Mother Maybelle Carter is usually credited with the decision to pick the autoharp up, from the lap or the table, and hug it, like a baby.  I think she did that to get the instrument near the microphone.  But it is certainly an easier and more fun playing position.

A really strange thing about the autoharp is that the best players who have ever lived are alive now.  And you will see and hear one of them – Mike Fenton - in Gargrave, in June.  It is only in recent decades that really skilled musicians have taken up the autoharp, understood it, and redesigned it to meet their needs.  In the USA you will find the Mount Laurel Autoharp Gathering, and the MLAG Autoharp Hall of Fame.  Mike Fenton is the English member of that Hall of Fame.  Also watch out for Nadine White, our expert on the autoharp alongside other folk instruments.  And the Kilcawley Family – brother and sister duo, Damon and Louiza.  That is Louiza on our poster.

The redesign of the autoharp continues – it is a great instrument for people who like to tinker.  There are now different flavours – autoharps that are stronger in specific keys, for example.  I usually sing in the key of G, so I have an autoharp that helps me there.  There are beautiful, hand crafted ‘luthier’ instruments – Alec Anness is the main English luthier autoharp maker.  For the moment I make do with what I find on Ebay – but one day, perhaps.

The Gargrave Autoharp Festival comes together as an alliance between UK Autoharps, a small national organisation, and Gargrave Village Hall, a vital community resource.  We have just heard that we have secured Arts Council funding for our festival.  This is the first ever autoharp event in the North of England – it is our equivalent, perhaps, of the USA’s Mount Laurel.  But in Gargrave I want us to discover the English Autoharp.

On the Saturday, June 1, there will be a day of autoharp demonstrations and classes – inexperienced would-be musicians welcome.  On the Saturday evening there will be a – heavily subsidised – family-friendly Grand Concert.  On the Sunday there will an Autoharp Service in Gargrave’s lovely church.  And throughout the weekend we will fill the village with formal and informal music sessions.  We can hope for good weather…

Patrick O’Sullivan

Telephone 01756 668218

For more on UK Autoharps see 
For more on Mike Fenton see 
For more on Alec Anness see

Thursday, 7 March 2013

AHRC Research Networking Project: ‘Digitising experiences of migration: the development of interconnected letter collections’

One of the projects I have been advising is beginning to come together nicely.

One part, an Arts & Humanities Research Council funded network, is now in place.

Below is a helpful outline by Emma Moreton, University of Coventry - this is taken from the Correspondence Corpora blog...


digitising experiences of migration

An AHRC Research Networking Project: ‘Digitising experiences of migration: the development of interconnected letter collections’

Emigrant letters are expressive and indicative of correspondents’ identities, values, preoccupations and beliefs; they are a powerful source of information and understanding about migration issues, provide a colourful picture of domestic life from an emigrant perspective, and shed light on processes of language change and variation.

The sourcing and archiving of emigrant letter collections are growing, providing a rich resource for teaching and learning which transcends disciplinary and methodological boundaries. Letter collections are of great interest to academics, schools, community groups and private individuals who are interested in researching the lives and experiences of letter writers.

The Problem
Although many emigrant letter collections have now been digitised, not all are properly archived; some are reduplicated and others are in danger of being lost. The documentation and preservation of such letters is, therefore, a particularly pressing need. Additionally, emigrant correspondence projects have almost always evolved independently of one another, and although project teams have been successful in tackling important research questions relating to social history and immigration studies they have rarely joined forces, or engaged with stakeholder groups from other disciplines. Furthermore, relatively few projects have moved beyond the digitisation stage to exploit text content and enhance usability and searchability through the use of corpus techniques and tools. Different letter collections cannot easily interconnect if they are simply digitised without annotation and markup, and some search pathways through the material will remain unavailable if software tools are not employed to process this encoding.

The Solution and Approach
The aim of our research network is to bring together various stakeholder groups working with emigrant letter collections to discuss issues and challenges surrounding digitisation, build capacity relating to correspondence annotation and the use of corpus tools, and initiate the process of interconnecting resources to encourage cross-disciplinary research. Central to this is the development of a system of correspondence annotation and markup to represent the linguistic, structural, discoursal, contextual and physical properties of the letters, thus offering different layers of meaning and ‘ways in’ to the texts. This allows for more sophisticated searches, and also the presentation of outputs through meaningful visualisations.

The Benefits
Our aim is to improve interconnectivity between existing digital collections of migrant correspondence and develop a blueprint for greater connectivity across a wider range of digitalised correspondence archives. Through the exploration of new ways of organising, interpreting and using various information, it seeks to improve access to digital resources for use by academics, the general public, and a broad range of cultural and creative industries. A key output of our work will be a much-needed set of best practice guidelines for the digitisation and annotation of correspondence collections.

The first network meeting will take place in Utrecht in May 2013.
The main objective of this workshop will be to understand and map out the linguistic, structural, discoursal, contextual and physical properties of the letters that each stakeholder group is working with, identifying where there is overlap and/or scope for cross-disciplinary research, and any issues surrounding privacy and property rights. In this workshop we anticipate exploring at least some of the following questions:
1) What do different researchers use correspondence collections for?
2) What features of the letters do researchers consider to be important and what common language can be used to express these concepts?
3) What possible barriers are there to increased interconnectivity between correspondence collections and increased collaboration across disciplines, and how might they be overcome?

More details to follow…
For more information please contact Emma Moreton:

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Gargrave: Autoharp Capital of the North 1

This article was submitted on March 1 2013 to Autoharp Notes, the journal of the UK's autoharp community.  The article was rewritten at the last minute, when we heard that our bid for Arts Council funding had been successful.


Gargrave:  Autoharp Capital of the North

Gargrave Autoharp Festival
Gargrave Village Hall
Yorkshire BD23 3RD

Friday May 31, Saturday June 1, Sunday June 2 2013

Our Friends in the South
I have the email record.  I can tell you precisely when UK Autoharps President, Neil Gillard, and our Treasurer, Terry Pearson, first asked me to look at the possibility of creating an Autoharp Event somewhere in the North of England.  It was in June 2011.  The brief background is that there had never been a UKAA Event in the North of England, and we do not have many members in the North.  I live in Bradford, Yorkshire.  I get lonely.

First, look at guidelines prepared by Bob Edbon, UKAA’s Advance Organiser, and liaise with Bob.  And get a feel for the kind of building, the kind of venue, the kind of environment that might work for UKAA.  A new model, just on the horizon in 2011, was Nadine White’s little festival, in Moniaive, Scotland – I went there, and became aware of a village where a major industry, connected to local tourism, was…  music festivals.  And, of course, I went to as many of the standard UKAA days as I could.  

A little check list developed inside my head – I will mention two recent events that made it to that checklist.  Sue Edwards’ autoharp weekend in Stroud, and the Autoharp Day at the American Museum, Bath, in 2012.  At the American Museum the Autoharp was made welcome.  I am in danger of disappearing into a sort of Autoharper code here, but I think the readers of this journal will know what I mean.  So, note to self:  how do you create an event and an environment where the autoharp is welcome?  I think here of classes by Nadine and Ian White, and of reports on the UKAA Facebook pages of brave souls making brave forays into the folk clubs – work on the welcome.  The day at the American Museum in Bath was, of course, dreadfully afflicted by the rain – and lots of lovely planned things just could not happen.  So, note to self:  plan for rain.  Further note to self:  it might not rain.

And, of course, note to self:  plan for Mike Fenton.  Plan for Mike Fenton’s diary, plan for Mike Fenton’s van.  That van full of autoharps.  I recall once at Sorefingers there was a crisis one evening when Mike Fenton could not find the keys to his van.  We searched through the grass in the dark, with torchlight and fingers.  Fraught, intense, of course – keys are anxious things.  But, I realise now, in that van rides the future of the autoharp in the England.  And a general note about planning an autoharp event:  we must look after our professionals.

Our Friends in the North
So, back at my home in Yorkshire…  Look at costs and possible budgets.  And then begin prospecting.  I talked to musician friends, and friends in other branches of the arts and culture businesses.  Looking at venues was a curious mix of the tedious and the depressing.  I recalled places where I had taken part in events, or I had been part of planning events.  When I went to visit I would find a derelict building with its slates stolen.  Or I would find a shutter-encased fortress, in a car park full of broken glass.  And I would think:  I cannot bring my delicate autoharpers here.  Increasingly as venues were suggested I would first check them out on Google Maps and Snaps.  And I made the decision – and I say this with a certain amount of guilt, and I have since been challenged about the decision – to stop looking in the cities and urban areas of Yorkshire.  It would have been just too difficult to move into some areas with something small scale, new and strange.

I began to start conversations, with possible centres, community groups, music clubs and music groups.  One failed extended conversation is worth mentioning – with Skipton, the attractive market town in North Yorkshire, where I have friends and contacts.  Skipton – a bit like Moniaive - has a regular cycle of festivals and cultural events.  Friends of mine are involved in the Puppet Festival, other friends are involved in the Waterways Festival.  And, suddenly, there was a gap in the 2013 sequence of festivals, when our friends in the Waterways Festival pulled out.  Skipton asked us if we would like to fill that gap.  It was too big a gap for Autoharp alone, but Bob Ebdon and I put work into seeing how you could develop an Autoharp-centred event in a market town, with the help of the other lesser-spotted musical instruments.  There was great enthusiasm – musicians wanted it.  It would have come together.  But we were really involved, of course, in local politics.  Skipton has three different levels of local government, and communication had broken down about the needs of the Waterways Festival.  The threat of our proposed music festival was enough to mend communication.  Note to self:  re-read Winifred Holtby, South Riding.

Some possible venues, especially the ones with professional management in place, are impossible for other reasons.  There is no possibility of dialogue, no flexibility, no autonomy.  When we approach them we are not even a customer, we are a resource to be exploited.  There is no way of beginning the conversation – that we are bringing something new into a community.  (To win that argument, of course, we must bring something new into the community.)  I feel now, after talking to friends in music, theatre and other cultural businesses, that this is a real problem in this country.  I know the debates – but there is little point in building and servicing venues if creative people cannot afford to use them.  And audiences do not enter them.  And I am thinking here of that derelict building with its slates stolen.  Some venue costs look to me unrecoverable.  It was clear that budgets must be tweaked - a small, national organisation like UK Autoharps can only do so much with its members’ subscriptions and good will.  A major factor in planning any event nowadays is the cost of diesel – especially an event in the North of England.  Think of Mike Fenton’s van…

Gargrave Autoharp Festival
Then began the conversation with Gargrave Village Hall.  We are really fortunate to have met Sally Thomas and her husband Roland, who have taken on the work of continuing the conversation within the Village Hall committee and within the Village community.  Sally and Roland found us that weekend, the weekend of Saturday June 1 2013 – none of the other regular Village Hall users were using it.  We have tweaked the budget – because we have an alliance with the local community, and through them with the local authorities, we can put in credible funding applications. 

As I write, comes the news that our bid for Arts Council funding has been successful.  The immediate consequences are that we can treat our professionals with the respect that they have earned and deserved.  And we can safeguard UK Autoharps development fund for further projects next year.

Contact with the local community brings local knowledge, so that we are plugged into local community groups, listings, newspapers, radio, web sites.  Gargrave is a very attractive village, near Skipton, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales.  I can bring my delicate autoharpers here.  The core of our standard Saturday Autoharp Day is in place, June 1, with demonstrations and classes.

The further funding tweak - alongside Arts Council support - is that Gargrave Village Hall is letting us have the use of the venue for free.  In return we will put on a Grand Concert, Autoharp and Friends, on the evening of Saturday June 1.  The 'And Friends' bit means that we can offer a balanced evening, reaching out to our musician and performer contacts and colleagues in Yorkshire - the contacts that Bob Ebdon and I have made.  I have already had to turn down two quite significant local bands, who offered to play at our concert for free.  It is a question of balance.  The Grand Concert must showcase the Autoharp.  (And then some Friends...)

We are in Gargrave as guests of the community - we should, like good guests, bring a small gift.  It turns out that Gargrave has its own poet, Robert Story, who died in 1860.  They don't quite know what to make of him.  But we do.  Robert Story wrote song lyrics.  My suggestion is that we take a couple of Robert Story lyrics and perform them at our Grand Concert.  Most of his work is now freely available on Google Books.  I am writing a series of articles for the Gargrave Village Magazine.  The first will be about the Autoharp and our hopes for the Gargrave Autoharp Festival.  They have now asked me to write a further article, about Robert Story.  I can do that. 

Meanwhile I go to every community meeting that will give me a chance to speak.  Gargrave's pub is involved.  And we will have a Moniaive-style Autoharp Service in St. Andrew's, Gargrave's beautiful church, on the morning of Sunday June 1.  Everyone in Gargrave now knows what an Autoharp looks like - they are still desperately waiting to meet someone who can really play the damn thing.  So far they have had to make do with me.

Patrick O'Sullivan
March 1 2013