Women in Harp Guitar History: Introduction

Welcome to the first in a series as I celebrate Women’s History Month with an incredible collection of almost one hundred images of women playing harp guitars throughout history.

I have so much to catch up on! I’ve been collecting and posting images of historical harp guitar players for 17 years now. The variety and quantity of discoveries has astounded even me; I stopped counting at somewhere around 500 images. If I had to guess, I’ve got somewhere between 600 and 750 images (not all are on the site yet). After recently scouring my files, and collecting all the female players into a new folder, I was delighted – though not necessarily surprised – to find almost 100 images where the woman in the group was the harp guitar player. Statistically, that historically puts women harp guitarists at around 13 to 15% of men. Not bad! It’s actually much better than today, which is rather surprising in light of how far we’ve come. (I’ll touch on that at the end of the series.)

About half of the images have never been published on Harpguitars.net until now. Where possible and useful, I’ll include comments and captions. Many images are better simply left to the imagination! Also (pause for commercial break) please keep in mind that the images and information are made available for your entertainment and research through donations to our non-profit Harp Guitar Foundation.

And now – I think I’ll begin, completely arbitrarily, on two women from different continents, different worlds, different instruments, and completely different musical and personal backgrounds.

estella_mccutcheon-cadenaza-12-01

December, 1901. The very first harp guitarist to enjoy a title page profile in The Cadenza magazine was a young woman: Estella McCutcheon, of Battle Creek, Michigan. She was a member of the local Allen Mandolin, Banjo and Guitar Orchestra; its director and her teacher – J. Worth Allen – was one of the typical triple threats of the BMG movement, playing and teaching the three instruments, while leading a group of his students.

estella-setThe same issue featured the program (submitted by Allen) that they had played at the end of October for a public concert. The concert included Estella on harp guitar performing a duet with Allen on mandolin (Allen also did his own harp guitar solo). Further, Allen had also written a “Letter to the Editor” to respond to a previous issue’s article where some stuffy “modern guitar” poser had ridiculed the harp guitar as being “not a solo instrument” and impossible to hold upright (his preferred playing position). Allen’s point being that he and Estella were easily doing both – playing harp guitar solos in the upright position.

I think we may forgive the editor’s comments (twice) about a “lady” who was “quite small” managing the instrument. She is playing a brand new Truax – a (likely) Larson brothers-built instrument that looks at least 16” wide and was correspondingly deep. A “parlor guitar” it was not! (The same editor would shortly and surely be dumbfounded when he started seeing women with 18” and 21” wide Gibsons (!) – which you’ll see later in this series.)

truax_ad-cadenza

A nearly identical Truax with fancy inlays appeared in the same issue without mention, but would soon be advertised monthly. It’s an interesting “double-neck” with 3-strip tuners on both sides of each headstock, the two heads joined together to form one large decorative head. The very wide oval soundhole and bridge design were typical of Truax – who, incidentally were 25 miles due east as the crow flies from Kalamazoo, where Orville Gibson was then building his own extra-large harp guitars.

Lieselott-Berner-amy-mills1

In powdered wigs or au naturel, Conrad and Lieselott Berner were a rather striking violin and harp guitar duo in Europe. It seems their set would consist of everything from virtuoso Paganini pieces to humorous songs. When asked by her luthier how she wanted the moustache bridge to look, Lieselott must have said “just keep going, I’ll tell you when to stop!” I wonder if they were more of a “pop” act, as they produced numerous photo postcards to the presuming delight of their fans, while their one 1917 review in Der Gitarrenfreund (serious guitarists only, please!) was pleasant enough, but far from glowing. A colorful couple that surely would have fit in perfectly at our Harp Guitar Gatherings!

(Thanks to Amy Mills for 3 of the Berner images and BMS Guitars for 1)Lieselott-Berner-amy-mills3

Lieselott-Berner-bms

Lieselott-Berner-amy-mills2

Lieselott-Berner,poland,1917

Next: A Herd of Hollow Arms!

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