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Used in many regions of Africa, the jaw harp was a common instrument among the enslaved at Mount Vernon and other plantations.

Cheap, portable, and readily available, jaw harps attained a wide following throughout the colonial era. To date, two jaw harps have been discovered in archaeological excavations at Mount Vernon. The example shown below was recovered from the work area between the south ha-ha wall and the dung repository. A second, slightly less complete, example was recovered from the excavations at the blacksmith’s shop.

Design

The basic construction and form of the jaw harp have remained largely unchanged since its introduction into Europe from Asia in the 12th and 13th centuries. It is comprised of two parts: a lyre-shaped frame and a thin strip of metal, called a tongue or vibrator. Historically, such instruments displayed minor variations in the shape of the frame head (round versus flat) and frame material (copper alloy versus iron).

Both examples from Mount Vernon are of the same type, with a cast copper alloy frame and a round head. In the manufacture of all harps, a small slot was cut or cast on one side of the frame’s head. The vibrator, usually made of iron, was seated in this slot so as to run between the legs of the frame. The joint was then hammered closed to secure the end of the vibrator to the frame while still allowing it to flex along its length.

This jaw harp was recovered from the work area between the south ha-ha wall and the dung repository at Mount Vernon. (MVLA)

Archaeologically, these thin iron vibrators often corrode away, leaving only the thicker frames intact. Fortunately, in this example, a small portion of the vibrator has been preserved and can be seen as the black fragment between the legs of the harp in the image above. Additionally, the small slot and hammer marks where the vibrator was originally attached during its manufacture are visible.

How to Play

The instrument was played by taking the frame lightly in one hand and placing it between the lips near the front of the player’s teeth, which were slightly parted. The instrument’s vibrator was then plucked with the player’s second hand. The tone and character of the ensuing sound were altered through changes in both air flow, generated by the player’s inhalation or exhalation, and size of the mouth cavity, usually controlled by the raising or lowering of the player’s tongue.

Video: Hear a Jaw Harp

Availability

Both archaeological and documentary evidence demonstrate that jaw harps were available to and owned by a wide array of people throughout America in the 18th century. For example, an 1778 advertisement in the Virginia Gazette lists jaw harps among a range of common personal and household items available from the firm of Hooe & Harrison in Alexandria. At Mount Vernon, the recovery of these objects from spaces that were primarily used by enslaved and freed laborers in the 18th and early 19th centuries suggests that music pervaded the daily lives of the entire community on the plantation.

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