Harp Hero | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Harp Hero

Endangered instruments tug one musician's heartstrings

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As the clock struck two in the Marlboro, Vermont, town meetinghouse, a crowd began to gather for an afternoon concert. Soon, the austere interior of that 19th-century landmark, flooded with light from tall windows, would fill to capacity. The audience, numbering among its ranks children and college students, thirty-somethings and graybeards, had been drawn by a singer and musician recognized as an American folk music legend. Her contribution to that rich heritage has proved, in the words of one music critic, "no less than mighty."

Many of the songs Margaret MacArthur performs—traditional tunes evoking the lives of ordinary women and men in the 18th and 19th centuries—soldiers and farmwives, apprentices and peddlers—would be lost to history had she not collected them. Even more remarkably, the instrument she plays this day, a cunningly scaled-down version of a harp, has also survived largely as a result of her singular passion for our collective musical past.

MacArthur, a handsome, silver-haired woman in her early 70s, champions a range of endangered musical species, rescuing both instruments and music from likely oblivion. Among the scores of rare and antique instruments she has acquired, one remarkable treasure is a diminutive 100-year-old harp-zither. It came her way in 1961, on a winter evening when providential forces mysteriously converged.

"It was terrible out there," she recalls, describing that night four decades ago. As a near blizzard swirled outside her mountainside farmhouse, MacArthur phoned Putney, Vermont, about a classified advertisement offering an Irish harp for sale. But the asking price was more than she could afford: $500.

Just as she hung up the phone, MacArthur was surprised to hear a knock at the door. "I wondered," she remembers, "who would be crazy enough to come out on a night like this."

The intrepid visitor proved to be Win Landman, a local carpenter who had managed to drive over from his father’s farm, some 30 miles away. Shaking off snow as he stamped inside, he drew an object out from behind his back. "My dad," he announced, "sent you a present." With a flourish, he presented MacArthur with a small harp.

Landman’s family, it turned out, had spent the better part of several days clearing rubbish from a long-neglected corner of their barn. They had retrieved the instrument from where it hung on a post, nearly concealed under matted grapevines, and immediately recognized it as being of great rarity. So much so that a visit to MacArthur could not wait.

An Exquisite Artifact

 

As a folksinger well known throughout southern Vermont, MacArthur had traveled to many farmsteads in the region, recording songs handed down within rural families. Only a year or so before, she had transcribed lyrics sung by Landman’s sister, Phoebe.

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