I Play a Jaw-Harp
I play a jaw-harp. You can call it a trump, a drumbla, a génggong, or a scacciapensieri; a vargan, a marranzanu, a kubing, or a good ol’ jew’s-harp, but there’s no mistaking the rhythmic, aggressive, driving beat of a metal or bamboo tongue vibrating like mad through the embrochure clamped firmly in place against my upper and lower teeth. By varying the force and direction of airflow past the tongue, I can make my jaw-harp weep, like an Appalachian man who has lost all hope in a folk melody unearthed by Pete Seeger, or make it sing with exuberance, like Snoopy and Woodstock dancing past to a Vince Guaraldi score in a Lee Mendelson/Bill Melendez cartoon. The jaw-harp is my soul. It is the soul of all of us.
I once killed a man with a jaw-harp. His screams lingered on the wet Miami air as I plunged the metal (or bamboo?) tongue repeatedly into the soft spot just below the jaw line, where it would eventually puncture his windpipe. My trump (or drumbla, as I was calling it in those days) flashed in the lengthening shadows and his blood darkened as it flowed. He wept like the hopeless Appalachian he was, and I laughed an exuberant laugh, as if I were enjoying a classic Lee Mendelson/Bill Melendez cartoon. With only my jaw-harp and a couple of twenties from his pocket, I struck out for Reno.
I eat jaw-harps. There’s nothing better than a bowl of jaw-harp stew, simmered in its own aggressive, driving juices; or the traditionally Italian plate of scacciapensieri and clams. Seeger once expressed his disbelief that an instrument as traditionally rugged as a kubing or vargan could be ingested, but he’d never unearthed the age-old family recipes I’d discovered during my time in the corners of Appalachia. I don’t recommend cooking your own, but if you ever get the chance to sample skillfully prepared jaw-harp, by all means, do so.
My wife left me for a jaw-harp. As I stepped out of our cold-water flat in Pittsburgh for what would turn out to be the last time, I thought I recognized the faint snigger of a génggong holed up in what would turn out to be our closet. If you’d told me I’d be cuckolded by a marranzanu, or even a good ol’ jew’s-harp, I’d most likely have been more philosophical about it all. Instead—when I realized she’d had the locks changed—I pounded and pounded on the door, rhythmically, aggressively, while I raved and wept like an Appalachian. Later, Vince Guaraldi took me in. Thank God for that jazzman.
I’ve never seen a jaw-harp. Oh, I’ve been known to talk about them from time to time, and I swear I’ve heard their rhythmic, aggressive, driving beats float by on the cold dry Appalachian breeze. But sometimes I find myself doubting that trumps, drumblas, vargans or kubings even really exist. When all is said and done, you can’t prove that anyone’s ever actually plucked a bamboo tongue suspended within an embrochure—or even a metal tongue. Some will say that pictures don’t lie, but those Mendelson/Melendez/Guaraldi cartoons are just that—cartoons. Plus, I’ve never seen them. Or Snoopy and Woodstock, for that matter. I’ve also never been to Appalachia. Is that in a state?