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Harvey Reid Interview

by Becky Blackley (from Autoharpoholic Magazine 1989)

Harvey Reid is simply one of my favorite musicians and one of my favorite persons. In addition to being a talented songwriter, Reid is an unquestioned master of both the guitar and autoharp. In 1981 he won the National Finger-pick Guitar Championship and the next year took second place in the International Autoharp Championship. Any musical instrument takes on magical qualities in his hands, and if you want to just let your heart and soul be gently carried off to a special musical world, spend some time listening to him on anyone of his recordings. To date he has five: Nothin' but Guitar (no autoharp on that one, as you might suspect), A Very Old Song, The Coming of Winter, The Heart of the Minstrel on Christmas Day (which replaces an earlier recording, The Christmas Project.) and Of Wind and Water. He performs solo and as a member of the bluegrass band The North Dixie Road Kings. (Reid plays in this group as "Rusty Licks" along with other band members "Black Short," "Carl Stahl," and the leader "Lonesome Dave." They are very funny!)
Reid is also an accomplished writer in the field of music. He wrote two articles for The Autoharpoholic: "Amplifying the Autoharp" (Fall '88) and "Recording with the Autoharp" (Winter '89). He also wrote several columns for Frets magazine before it ceased publication.
The interview with Harvey Reid took place in February 1989 while he was making his yearly visit to our home. (Harvey lives in New Hampshire; we live in California; he visits us every February... the man is no fool.) While my husband, Gordon (a.k.a Ferd Smith), was in the kitchen making dinner (don't all husbands do that?), Harvey shared his thoughts on the autoharp and music in general.

Q: At what point did you get involved with music? That is, any kind of music, not just autoharp. When and how did the autoharp come into your life?

A: Oh I stumbled on a $20 guitar when I was about fourteen. I noodled around with it for a little while and got a $60 guitar when I was a junior in high school... Noodled around with it until it was stolen. Then I saved up some money and bought a $170 guitar when I graduated from high school. The summer after that, I bought my first real guitar. There's really no particular music background. It sounds like I'm being elusive, but my first two years all I had was a book from "Toys-R-Us" called 150 Folk Songs with Six Magic Chords. I have no musical background whatsoever.
I was living in Hyattsville, Maryland, with my parents. My father was a civilian working for the government. My mother was busy being a housewife. I have five brothers and a sister. (I'm the well-adjusted middle child.) None of them play any musical instruments at all, or ever have. My family discouraged me from playing music. There were no musical instruments in the house, nothing. I had to hide my guitar from my father. He didn't approve of it or didn't want my music in the house. Well, my father, sort of insisted that we had to take up sciences. My family background really has nothing to do with my musical history whatsoever.
I went to college at the University of Maryland, and when I was at college, all I did was play guitar. That's basically where my energy was going. I did other school work, but through a series of revelations I decided that I would play music. I decided that music and science both offered a lot of things that were similar. They both offered opportunities to indulge one's intellectual and even spiritual pursuits. The only difference was that music allowed one to take part in the world, rather than think of the world and all of it's people and places and events as distractions to one's work. It always seemed unfortunate that whenever you're doing sciences, you had to lock yourself in a room and in order to really do intellectual things, you have to block out the rest of the world, and that seemed much more appealing to me: You can be grooving on the theoretical nature of guitar chords while you're drinking beer and having fun with your friends. It seemed like a much more balanced pursuit.
I was a street musician for quite a while. I got a fellowship to graduate school in Wisconsin, and I was wondering how long I would last as an uninterested student... It was about a week. Just before I dropped out of school I was playing in a square dance band. That was 1974, I guess, so I've never had any job since then, other than begging on the street corners and gradually playing in the streets.
I think I got my first paying gig somewhere around 1976, a couple of years later. I think I actually made forty bucks or something, but I've basically made my whole living in the last fifteen years or so playing guitar in decreasingly-unpleasant bars. I've done every conceivable gig that's known to man. I've done it. I've been in punk bands; I've been in country western bands. I've played where people would ride their Harley-Davidson's in the front door and rev them up in front of anyone, and no one paid any attention. I've seen stabbings. I've seen every conceivable form of lunacy. I've played shopping centers. I've done Smokey the Bear's birthday parties, private parties, weddings (hundreds of weddings), and funerals. I've even played funerals. Everything. Anything. I mean, you know, "need money, will travel." I lived in my car for six years of my life.
Most of my street music was in (Washington) D.C. I gradually started playing more things with strings. I got my first mandolin in '76. Actually autoharp was my second instrument. I got my first autoharp in January 1975. I traded the guitar I bought on my eighteenth birthday for the autoharp that I now have. I got it from the guy whose wife was my mother's college roommate. I was staying with them, briefly, in Indiana.
Actually I had been playing autoharp for two years before that. I started in 1972. In fact, next week I'm going to see the guy who's responsible for it. He's been one of my friends since junior high school. We were roommates one summer, and I think he was jealous, that he thought I was meeting more girls with my guitar than he was. He read in some publication that the autoharp was the perfect instrument for someone who wanted to start making music immediately and who had no particular musical ability or background, so he purchased one.
I had seen autoharps. I can't remember whether or not the Will the Circle be Unbroken album was out yet, but I already knew about Mother Maybelle. I think I already know about Pop Stoneman. I'd seen music teachers strumming them. I think I must've known about the Appalachian-style autoharp, and I'm not sure that I knew about John Sebastian. I was not ignorant at all about the autoharp, but I only play one because my friend Rob bought one.
I do remember the fatal night. We were at Rob's mother's home. We were looking for ping pong paddles in the closet, and I found the autoharp in the closet. Somehow I got interested that night in playing it, and I played it for probably the next six or eight hours. I know that most of what I know now about autoharp occurred on that one night.
I know somewhere around that period I was obsessed with Leo Kottke. I went to see him at some theater in Washington, D.C. The opening act was a guy that played slide guitar blues and some autoharp, too. His name was Bryan Bowers. About two-thirds of his show was slide guitar, and actually I thought he was a really good blues slide guitar player. This was very early in his career.
I was a life guard in the summers after that, and I used to take the autoharp and noodle around on it when I was killing time. I remember when I first hit the road on my big road trip. I had a guitar and an autoharp with me. I didn't play it much at my bar gigs for awhile. Then when I figured out how to get it loud, I realized that even the bikers liked it. It's always been a welcome things at my gigs, and I've never been able to stop playing it. There's a little part of me that, even though my main interest is guitar, I always have the autoharp with me. If I don't have it at a show, I always feel cheated. It allows me to express certain things that I cannot express any other way. It'd be very convenient for my career if I could just be a guitar player, but all through the years I've always taken the autoharp with me, and people have always liked it. I've always gotten reinforcement for it.
I remember making fifty-five dollars in one hour playing autoharp at the Greenwich Village Art Fair in New York in '75. I discovered that the visual spectacle of a long-haired kid playing autoharp was a better money maker than playing guitar. Just random passers-by gave me significantly more money when I played autoharp. So I played autoharp probably eight hours a day in the street then, trying to make money to live on.
But, I really haven't learned a whole lot new in at least ten or twelve years. I've never practiced the autoharp. I've never ever paid attention to what I'm doing. It's all instinctive.
You know I never knew another autoharp player, never took a lesson. I can only believe my inclinations to play music came from entirely internal places and the events that shaped my life. I had no hand in creating these events, just things that happened to me. I've still only ever really played the one autoharp, and it takes me immediately and directly to the astral plane, so to speak. I enjoy it totally every time it's time to play, and therefore I don't look any further.

Q: You have modified the instrument itself, however. You've recently added one lock bar to your chromatic harp. What made you decide to do that?

A: It's true. It probably grew out of being annoyed. I was enjoying myself with the chromatic harp, but the autoharp community seemed to think that diatonic was the sound they wanted, and it was the fashionable sound. The official sound everybody is after is basically diatomic, but it's so limiting. You can't even play a 1-7 chord. So I decided after serious thought to put a lock bar on my chromatic harp. I have two of them, actually, one's for F and one's for C. I think it's the best of both worlds. I can even hold it down temporarily: I can just hold it down with one finger.
I've been playing the autoharp for almost twenty years, and I know right where all the strings are, and with a diatonic harp, it screws up the relationship where and how far you reach for the melody string. I cannot look. I have to play autoharp with my eyes shut, and I know right where the notes are. It's entirely instinctive, knowing how far to reach to get the note I want, and when I play diatomic harps, it throws off the relationship, and I get lost.
I make my lock bars with my Swiss Army knife. Any they work! It's hillbilly, but... I read about it in Autoharpoholic . It was a great idea. In fact, I use that a lot now. I use a lock bar on most of the tunes on The Coming of Winter. I'd just done it the month before I did that album.
I wrote a bunch of instrumentals last year. I was going to do an autoharp album, and I decided that I didn't like any of the autoharp tunes. I thought it was unfortunate that nearly every song everybody was playing on the autoharp was an attempt to play fiddle tunes, and I just have concluded that all attempts to play fiddle tunes on the autoharp are lame... with about three exceptions. There are a few tunes where the melody is such that you can create an acceptable sensation of the tune, but the rest of it is just like a dog standing on its blind legs: You know, it's not that it's done well, it's that it's done at all. I think it's silly that autoharp players are so obsessed. I guess it's a rite of passage, some sort of macho ritual. Somehow if you can play fiddle tunes, it legitimizes the instrument, but it's pointless. There are tunes fiddles can't play well either.

Q: They can't play autoharp tunes. I do like your version of "Southwind," though, and that is a fiddle tune. Most of what you do on the autoharp is so well-suited for the autoharp. I love things on the autoharp that are so beautiful they make you want to cry.

A: Yeah. See, I don't have anything to prove with autoharp. I don't need to try to show how versatile it is. All I want to do is hit the ball out of the park with it, and there are certain kinds of certain kinds of songs I've tried. I've arranged "Southwind" on guitar. I can play all those tunes on other instruments and they don't work as well. The autoharp just has a peculiar power to it that allows you to created certain moods that no other instrument can touch, except maybe a pipe organ or something. It's kind of silly. Some people I think really overdo it, trying to play flamenco autoharp or even ragtime. There are sort of ragtime-flavored things that sound great on the autoharp, but, you know, you can't play counterpoint on the autoharp, and you can't convince yourself you can. You can sort of simply imply it, but beyond a certain point it loses it's power. It's good for what it's good for. I could never play a whole gig with just autoharp-it would bore me to death-but I wouldn't want to do one without it either.
People like it. It never ceases to amaze me. They love it. I continue to thrust it on people in every setting, and they always like it. That's another reason I keep doing it. Even people who know nothing respond to it. People who have only been fed by the mass media react positively to it. I think it is unfortunate that so many musicians who play other instruments don't realize what the autoharp is capable of. It's odd. There's a certain amount of disdain that comes from the bluegrass community and from people who think that somehow the autoharp is an idiot zither. To a certain degree it's true. It's so unfortunate that people can have so much fun quickly, because then what they need to do is really get down to business and work a little bit and learn to be real musicians. They're so busy enjoying themselves that they never get around to being musicians.

Q: But that's OK, too.

A: It is, and the whole music education system is built around the exact opposite: If you suffer for a few years, maybe someday you'll be able to enjoy yourself. That's the way they teach music. Being appalled by this attitude, I quit teaching music. I was teaching "alternative guitar" at University of Maryland, and I remember the guy that was teaching classical guitar. I had lunch with him one day. He said, "Boy, you know, I make sure my beginning students have at least a semester or two of nothing but scales and arpeggios before I'll let them play anything real music." And I said, "Really? Boy, I make sure all of my students have a semester or two of just having nothing but fun before I'll even let them near anything like a scale." I believe that you have to have a firm foundation in enjoying yourself before you should tackle any of the other stuff. The whole classical music teaching method is based on the opposite of that: You need a firm foundation in tyranny and military training techniques. Only a handful of people have enough joy left in them to survive that bootcamp experience of being browbeaten into learning things.

It's just a horrible shame that people cannot feel good about feeling good. Autoharp players do have a way. Maybe it's that they disgust other people because they have so much fun immediately. You put your ear to that thing, and the next thing you know... It's not the world's most versatile or powerful instrument, but what it can do, nothing else can do.
I was considering going to graduate school in music, trying to help make things better, and I remember talking to many people at graduate school. They'd say, "Well, you know, there's really no place in our program for you doing this American music that you're interested in. We can't see playing steel string guitar, or banjo, or mandolin, or any of these instruments. None of the things that you do really have any place. We could probably give you a degree if you studied gamelan or Macedonian bagpipes." Here you can get a Ph.D. in gamelan or in African gong-beating, and study these ridiculous things, but they won't even let you study banjo at a university.
Folk musicians are so intimidated by this, by the hallowed institutions of learning. People are afraid to look at a university and say, "You guys are jerks; you don't know what you're doing." We're taught that universities are the path to everything on the world, but they don't know anything. The way they teach music is most counter-productive.
I'm preaching here, but I've been on the inside. I was on the faculty of University of Maryland for four years. I've written text books. I've known many music educators, and they are all great people, but the system is a joke. They don't teach people to do what they want to do. They don't make a place for anyone in society. They graduates of their universities can do nothing but teach more people to be graduates. It's monks training monks to be monks to train monks to be monks.
I learned a secret there: that music professors are amazed by the banjo. I've learned this. These guys that can hum any oboe part to any Haydn octet have no idea how the banjo works. They're secretly very intrigued by it. I would love to study the inadequacies and fears of Ph.D.'s in music, and that's one of them. They'll stare at that banjo that's tuned G-D-G-B-D, and they'll be damned if they can figure out how people play the thing. What comes out of it is unknown to them. The Dean of Music at University of Maryland confessed to me that she would not go to parties at anyone's house. This is a very interesting, brilliant woman who was a concert pianist said she cannot even play "Happy Birthday" without the sheet music in front of her! She is so afraid that someone's going to say, "Oh, we have a piano. You're a piano professor. Why don't you play us a song?" If the music isn't there, she cannot play. I remember, she marveled at me, and I was marveling at her, but are skills are equal. They are skills that are equally valid.

That's really unfair for people that are trying to learn music. It's a shame that people have to learn it in the streets. I remember walking around with my guitar, just hoping I'd meet somebody who knew about open tunings so they could teach me about it. There were no sources at all, and I think it's great that there seems to be a new consciousness of learning folk music. There are magazines like yours and more workshops, and I sure get a feeling that things are much better than they were when I was leaning fifteen years ago. I mean obviously your entire life if built around this crusade, trying to convince people that the autoharp is worthy of a little more respect. I hope it continues.
I think that this North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance [Folk Alliance] is going to be a real good thing if it gets off the ground. I'm with you: There's something wrong about a philosophy that says if you don't suffer for it, it can't be good? Why can't something that you can pick up and do easily and enjoy and that makes you happy and that you're good at... why can't that be good? Why do you have to suffer? People think that whatever way they teach music in schools must be the right way to teach music.
There's no way to change it. My university guitar classes were packed, and I remember the dean saying, "Just because the students want it, doesn't mean that we should include it in the curriculum. You know, they would want free beer and videos, too. They don't necessarily know what is good for them." We could belabor this point forever, shout about it for hours, but the truth is that people who try to learn real music that they can use in their real lives are at a disadvantage, because the people speaking in favor of it don't appear to have credentials. We don't have Ph.D.'s, but we know more than these people, and yet our voices are so much smaller. There are so many people who are being systematically deprived of a chance to learn music that will have meaning to them in life and that will be useful to them, but you know you need a strong voice. Someone who is in a position of authority has to tell people that.

Until young teenage boys ask their mothers for autoharps for Christmas so they can get girls, the autoharp is doomed to be a fringe instrument. You know one of my goals is to build a new audience for acoustic music. I do that primarily with the guitar, but I intend to take my autoharp into trendier and trendier places. I have a good deal of reverence for what it can do. Maybe it's just a soft spot.
Autoharp players aren't really concerned with who's the fastest autoharp player in the world. In fact, they tend to make fun of the fast ones. The guitar community is out of control. The autoharp community seems to have a good foundation in appreciating the right things about what they're doing. They play songs because they like the songs, and if they can't take a solo, they don't. They're not afraid to strum rhythm.
You know, when you give an autoharp player an autoharp, they seem to actually play a song for you. If I had a kingdom I would give it to the first rock guitarist I ever met in a music store who picked up an electric guitar and actually played a song. Never in the history of electric guitar has anyone ever picked one up in a music store and played a song. They play licks, they just noodle on the thing, but they won't play a whole song from beginning to end. I think that's an illness.
I'm not aware of autoharp players who will pull out their autoharps and just play licks. They tend to play whole songs. I think it's an obvious thing, but so many other musicians, miss the point. They're afraid. They're not concerned with showing their feelings. People who play rock and roll guitar tend to use it as a vehicle for concealing their feelings. Autoharp players tend to see the autoharp as a vehicle for expressing their feelings, and the world needs more of that.

Q: What about "Southwind" made you want that to be played at your funeral?

A: I just play it all the time. When ever I do a gig, I play it on the autoharp. It's just emerged over the years. It was supposed to be on A Very Old Song. I even recorded it. I recorded it to put on the album, and it just didn't fit. There wasn't room for it, and it was conceptually wrong or something. I learned it many, many years ago, and whenever I perform it, it creates a feeling in me that's very powerful. I can't explain it. It overwhelms me when I really get going with it. It's the kind of song you end a night with at a concert. It's just the most beautiful melody that I know.

Q: If you had to pick one cut from your recordings that you wanted somebody who was interested in the autoharp to listen to, what would be the cut?

A: Yikes. I don't really put those things on there in order to make a statement about the autoharp. I do it because it works for me to create whatever I want in certain songs. Doggone, that's a great question. That deserves a real answer. I would recommend "The Coming of Winter" cut. It's a duet for the autoharp and the violin. It was recorded ten minutes after it was written, and it's only been played twice, both times were when it was recorded. We've never played it since. No, we just created it in a moment. That's the strongest I've ever felt with the autoharp. We had the recording studio all set up in the cottage. It was just a cold, dismal, gray, rainy day. They waves were crashing, and we were just inside shivering all day, and the autoharp just felt totally powerful. Often times I approach the autoharp more in a feeling of repose, or in thoughtfulness or something, but that particular time, though, it really felt strong to me.

Q: Well, it looks like dinner is ready. Any other words to the autoharp world?
A: I love you all. How's that?

Q: I enjoyed it. Well, it's time to sign off. Gordon's putting dinner on the table. Let's see cracked crab, artichokes, um, garlic bread... Bye.

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