Zither: It’s not an auto or a harp

Catch performance by Bryan Bowers, one of the US’s best autoharpists

Staff writerDecember 13, 2013 

If there’s any musical instrument out there with an image problem, it might be the autoharp.

The auto what?

Exactly.

Possessing a shape that exists only in geometry textbooks and a name that reveals little about its nature, the autoharp isn’t exactly tearing up stages. But if there’s anyone who can turn the stringed instrument into the ukulele of the 21st century, it’s Bryan Bowers.

The one-time Seattle resident is considered a virtuoso on the instrument, which is actually a chorded zither. On Saturday, he’ll perform at the downtown Tacoma library.

Born in Yorktown, Va., Bowers would tag along with farm hands and railroad workers as a boy and learned to sing old-fashioned call-and-answer songs.

“The music I heard while working in the fields was mesmerizing. And I’d see the gandy dancers coming down the tracks, setting the rails and getting their ties straight. You’ve heard that song ‘Whup Boys, Can’t you line ‘em? Chack a lack.’ Whup Boys, can’t you line ‘em? was the call the leader would sing. ‘Chack a lack’ was the bounce-back of the hammer after falling on the pin. I just thought that music was something that everyone did. It was years later that I realized what I’d been raised around.”

After first taking up the guitar in the late 1960s, he later discovered the autoharp.

“I ran into a guy that played several instruments and could get the harp in good tune. He played without any fingerpicks, just with his fingernails. He had a real sprightly style on it. It was the first time I’d heard someone play it in good tune and play it well. It opened my eyes and my ears. I went out and got one the next day.”

Bowers relocated to Seattle in the 1970s and became a street performer before finding success and a career on the stage. In 1993, he was the first living member inducted into the Autoharp Hall of Fame.

Autoharpist Bryan Bowers

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Olympic Room, Tacoma Public Library main branch, 1102 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma

Admission: Free

Information: tacomapubliclibrary.org, 253-292-2001, bryanbowers.com

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