In this clip, Mike Seeger, an expert musician and an authority on traditional American music, shows how to play the jaw harp and performs “Foo Boo Woo Boo John,” a traditional folk song that came to America from England.
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Versions of “Foo Boo Woo Boo John” are known in England and come from the oldest English songs. Originally, it was sung a cappella (with no instrumental accompaniment). Folksinger Mike Seeger added the trump (also called the jaw harp or Jew’s harp) interlude when he learned the song in 1971. The trump is a mouth instrument dating back thousands of years. It consists of a flexible tongue-like piece (lamella) fixed at one end to a surrounding frame. In Southeast Asia, it is used as an artificial voice. In India, it is used to enrich the sound of a drum. Some players emphasize the rhythmic, gong-like music, while others emphasize melodic styles to provide dance music.
The roots of American folk music are found in the music of many countries, including England, Scotland, Ireland, and countries in Africa. Settlers from European countries and slaves from African countries brought their cultures to the Americas. In the early 1600s, the settlers in the Southern Colony of Virginia, sometimes referred to today as Appalachia, brought their treasures and most valued possessions with them to the New World. They sang old songs and played musical instruments such as the violin, recorder, and jaw harp. Most of these people were from the British Isles, which included England, Scotland, and Ireland. Such instruments are artifacts and help us understand that music was an important part of their lives in the time period known as Colonial America.
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