The autoharp was invented in the 1870s as a sort of automated zither and initially was popular as a parlor instrument. It took hold in the Appalachians in the early 1900s thanks to its mail-order affordability, and local musicians quickly adapted it to an assortment of hymns, ballads, and fiddle tunes. The autoharp required frequent retunings, however, which kept it from being featured very prominently in the string band tradition of the Southern mountains, although Sara Carter played one on several of the early Carter Family recordings, and Maybelle Carte began featuring an autoharp at her shows in the 1950s, proving to be every bit as innovative on the instrument as she had been on the guitar. This delightful set of field recordings made by Mike Seeger in the 1950s and very early '60s features four masters of the Appalachian autoharp style, Virginian Ernest Stoneman (who made his first commercial autoharp recording in 1924), North Carolina father-and-son duo Neriah & Kenneth Benfield, and the left-handed Kilby Snow of Virginia (later in his life he made his home in Pennsylvania). Several of these tracks were originally released in 1962 on an LP called Mountain Music Played on Autoharp, and Seeger has here expanded the number of cuts from that release (substituting alternate takes in some cases) to make a generous survey of these unique players. Stoneman plays harmonica and sings to the accompaniment of the autoharp, turning himself into a one-man string band on songs like the banjo standard "Bile 'Em Cabbage Down" and Uncle Dave Macon's "All I Got's Gone." The Benfields turn in a wonderful autoharp duet on "Weeping Willow Tree," originally recorded by the Carter Family in 1927, while son Kenneth goes solo on impressive versions of "Old Joe Clark" and "Golden Slippers." But the clear maestro here is Kilby Snow, a left-handed player whose autoharp playing literally explodes into chiming, drag-note runs on an instrumental "John Henry," on the pretty "Close By" (recorded by both Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers in 1954), and on an amazing version of the comic fiddle tune "Chicken Reel." Fast-paced, gentle, and sounding as bright as the first day of spring, Masters of Old-Time Autoharp is a complete delight.
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AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett