The earliest North American mention I have of jews harps shows them as part of a quantity of trade goods paid for a parcel of land on the Delaware River on 2 August 1685: “Twenty Gunns, Twenty fathom Matchcoat, twenty fathom Stroudwaters, twenty Blankets, twenty Kettles, twenty pound Powder, One hundred Barrs Lead, forty Tomahawks, One hundred Knives, Fourty pare Stocking, One Barrel of Beer, twenty pound red Lead, One hundred Fathom Wampum, thirty Glass Bottles, thirty Pewter Spoons, one hundred Aul Blades, three hundred tobacco Pipes, One hundred hands of Tobacco, twenty Tobacco Tongs, twenty Steels, three hundred flints, thirty pare Sissers, thirty Combs, Sixty Looking Glasses, two hundred Needles, one Skiple Salt, thirty pounds Shuger, five gallons Mollassis, twenty Tobacco Boxes, One hundred Juise Harps, twenty Hows, thirty Guimlets, thirty Wooden Screw Borers & One hundred Strings Beads...” (Pennsylvania Archives, Philadelphia, 1852, vol. I, p. 95. Commas added.)
It is interesting that the two earliest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary also present the jews harp as a trade item: “If they would bring him hatchets, kniues, and Iewse-harps, he bid them assure me, he ... would trade with me.” (1595); “Wee should send them Iewes harpes: for they would giue for euery one two Hennes.” (c1596).
I have an audiocassette of a radio broadcast by the late raconteur Jean Shepherd (WOR, New York, circa 1970) in which he discourses on the jews harp. He includes a story about the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, chartered in 1638. The gist is that Capt. Robert Keayne, the company’s first commanding officer, was proudly leading a procession of the unit during field day exercises, accompanied by two drums and a trumpet. Keayne was mortified to find the citizenry snickering at some forty young Indian braves who had joined the parade, each twanging lustily on a jews harp obtained from the captain’s trading store. Deeply offended, Keayne had the braves chased off at sword point and thereafter never permitted the “jews harp parade” to be mentioned within his earshot. Shepherd’s tongue-in-cheek point is that jews harp players (of which he was one) have always been persecuted.
I have never come across a printed account of this incident. Perhaps one of our readers could fill in the details and provide a source.
Incidentally, Jean Shepherd has achieved an immortality of sorts with his radio broadcast of a reminiscence of his finagling, as a boy, to obtain a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. The anecdote has become a yuletide television staple, “A Christmas Story,” featuring a fictional boy named Ralphie Parker as Shepherd’s alter ego.
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