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Stupid Question--'The Twa Sisters'

27 Nov 97 - 01:16 AM (#16764)
Subject: Stupid Question--"The Twa Sisters"
From: Jen

I'm writing a story based on the "Twa Sisters" ballad, the one where the harper "makes a harp from her breastbone". The story is about a serial killer who is obsedded with the ballad and attempts to make his own harp from his victim's brastbones, but I can't quite figure out how the harper made the harp! And suggestions or thoughts on this? An average breastbone is about 7 inches long. That would be an awfully small harp.

I told you it was a stupid question, but any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.


27 Nov 97 - 03:23 AM (#16768)
Subject: Lyr Add: BINNORIE
From: Murray

It wasn't the breastbone, at least not in my version:

He's taen three strands o her yellow yellow hair,
Binnorie, O Binnorie,
And he has strung his harp sae rare,
By the bonny mill-dams o Binnorie.

And when he cam to the king's high ha'
Binnorie O Binnorie,
He's set the harp afore them a',
By the bonny mill-dams o Binnorie.

[similarly]

And before that he had touched ae string,
The harp it did baith say and sing.

Fare ye weel, my faither the king,
And fare ye weel, my mither the queen.

Fare ye weel, my sister Ellen,
For the droonin o me in hell ye'll swim.

Cheers
Murray


27 Nov 97 - 03:59 AM (#16774)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: dulcimer

One version I heard was the finger bones were made into fiddle pegs and the hair into strings and it played a mournful tune. The fiddle was long regarded as the devil's instrument, probably because of its droning. That might make for some interesting twists to your story.


27 Nov 97 - 02:05 PM (#16782)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Bo

I think that while the gruesome details are very important to the song, so long as they remain gruesome any details will do.

I've heard the song sung where it is the hair used for the harp, where the fingers are used, where the breastbone is used. I think the strongest tradition is probably the golden hair of the fair sister. This works as a visual image but I dont think you could weave it to actually make it work.

Guts, intestines, have often been the sources for strings, cat guts mostly.

Alternately, any skin can be stretched and tanned for a drum.

Bo More Gross than he wants to be.


27 Nov 97 - 02:48 PM (#16784)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Bruce O.

The earliest known version is "The Miller and the King's Daughter" "By Mr. Smith" in 'Wit Restor'd', pp. 51-4,1658. The text is in Child and a facsimile reprint of the book is available from Scholar Press.

brest bone - made him a viall to play thereon
finger - became pegs
nose-ridge becomes bridge
Veynes turned into the strings


27 Nov 97 - 05:52 PM (#16788)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Helen

Jen

This would be a good topic to ask the harp mailing list.

You could subscribe to the mailing list temporarily to ask the question and to get your answers, or I could post it as a thread for you and you can look up the answers on the mailing list archives

http://www.tns.lcs.mit.edu/harp/mailing-list/

To subscribe to the list send and email with the message "subscribe" to

Let me knw if you want me to post it as a thread.

The breastbone could be the neck, the pillar or the top of the harp. It wouldn't take any weight in real life so the harp would probably be plunky like a ukelele because you couldn't tune the strings up. The finger bones could be the tuning pegs and I like the idea of hair being used for strings. The hair could be wound around gut strings i.e. these strings have a core string, and are tightly wound with a finer string like wound steel strings on a guitar.

Helen


27 Nov 97 - 07:12 PM (#16792)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From:

A much more stupid question - What would the guy make of Hitler? - No, don't answer that.


28 Nov 97 - 12:40 AM (#16812)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Jen

Hey, thanks so much for the suggestions! Bo, I like your idea for a drum, and I'm thinking maybe it didn't exactly look like a traditional harp. Hmmm.

And Helen, thanks for the info. I'll do that.

And thanks everyone else, while I'm at it, everyone gave me ideas...

(And you think you're gross, Bo? Did you read my description of the story?) :-)


28 Nov 97 - 01:21 PM (#16825)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Bruce O.

Whoops. I forgot the HTML tags on my short list, so put a comma after thereon, pegs, and bridge.

Incidently, the "Mr. Smith" who wrote the song, according to 'Wit Restor'd', is James Smith.


01 Dec 97 - 12:42 PM (#16927)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Nonie Rider

Alternately, one could assume that the breastbone was incorporated into the harp as something like an inset decorative panel rather than a structural member.

Mind you, to modern ears, the idea of somebody mutilating an unknown body for harp bits is more jarring than mere sororicide, which is just tabloid material.

But yes, depending on the theme of your story, I'd probably myself just use the hair. I can see a mindset in which one might use a dead woman's hair as a form of tribute or protest, while hacking up her corpse isn't quite the same.


01 Dec 97 - 12:45 PM (#16928)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Jon W.

Skin could also be used as a sounding head as in a banjo. One of the versions I have heard has only three strings for the harp (made of the hair) which is not very many--the smallest listed in the Lark in the Morning catalog has 19 strings. Incidentally they also list a Kora--an African harp which has a gord belly, skin head, and gut strings. This would be close to the most ancient form of a harp, which has no pillar (therefore the strings can't be strung very tightly). I guess if I were going to construct a harp from body parts (which I'm not!) I would use the skull as the belly, skin as the sounding head, the largest rib as the neck, and either intestine or sinew as the strings. The breastbone wouldn't be very useful. The author probably chose that through a combination of ignorance of anatomy and because it rhymes with "stone" (i.e. "He made a harp of her breastbone, whose sound would melt a heart of stone").

Jon, also grosser than he wants to be.


01 Dec 97 - 02:43 PM (#16936)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Jen

Well, I'm not going to make one either, don't worry. But I've always wondered, and I definitely have gotten some great suggestions! Thanks everybody!

Jen


03 Dec 97 - 06:02 PM (#17058)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Helen

Sorry Jen

The harp mailing list seems to have closed ranks. They didn't like this question at all, it seems. They are a sensitive lot who love their harps very much and the thought of serial killers doing anything harp related, let alone anything as *yukky* as this was probably too much for them to cope with. I can relate to that too because harp music is so beautiful and serial killing with bizarre/gory results is so sad that the two don't really go together at all.

Oh well, it was worth a try. It might create some responses after they have recovered from the state of shock they are in now.

Helen


03 Dec 97 - 06:56 PM (#17062)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Jen

Helen,

I subscribed to the mailing list. But they mentioned something about spam, I actually got a lot of nice responses.

Jen


05 Dec 97 - 04:53 PM (#17168)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Helen

That's good, Jen.

They are a bunch of really nice people on the harp list. I didn't realise that you are a harper/ist too.

Helen


05 Dec 97 - 05:03 PM (#17170)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Max

This is what it's all about. You guys are great.


06 Dec 97 - 08:23 PM (#17238)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Helen

Max

*You're* the greatest. None of it would be possible without you.

Thanks Helen


07 Dec 97 - 12:57 AM (#17242)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: murray@mpce.mq.edu.au

There is also the possibility that the word "harp" is used in a more general sense--like in Jews Harp.

Murray


07 Dec 97 - 04:12 PM (#17248)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Helen

Murray

I'd be really surprised about that. The song is Scottish? in origin and appears to be at least a couple of centuries old. The clarsach in Scotland and harp in Ireland and Wales have been around for a long time, but how old is the Jew's harp and blues harp?

Helen


07 Dec 97 - 04:44 PM (#17251)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Bruce O.

Where is any evidence of Scottish origin? I pointed out the English author of by far the oldest known version above.


07 Dec 97 - 07:51 PM (#17257)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Helen

Sorry Bruce, I was assuming it was Scottish because of the use of the word "twa" for "two" in the version called Twa Sisters. It also uses other Scottish words like "sae" & "bonnie" etc.

Helen

THE TWA SISTERS

I says to my dear sister, "Are ye comin' for to walk?"
"Ayee O, an' sae bonnie, O"
"An it's I'll show you wonders before we go back."
And the Swan it swims sae bonnie, O.


07 Dec 97 - 09:00 PM (#17264)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: murray@mpce.mq.edu.au

Actually Helen, I said "like as in Jews Harp". I meant a colloquial use of the word "harp".

For example the term "harp" has meant "harmonica". Of course "harmonica" has many meanings like in "glass harmonica", and I don't know which one was meant.

By the way, I suspect the Jews harp is very old. A form of it was probably around in biblical times.

Murray


08 Dec 97 - 05:00 PM (#17293)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Helen

Murray

Yes I realised that you meant the colloquial use of the word "harp". I don't know the history of either the harmonica or the Jew's harp. On re-reading my posting it kind-of looks like I was being sarcastic when I wrote "..but how old is the Jew's harp and blues harp?" but it was written as a serious enquiry. No sarcasm intended. :-) I would be interested if anyone could tell me more - either in this posting, if it's appropriate, or by e-mail message. I would particularly like to know how the harmonica came to be referred to as a blues harp. That has always intrigued me,

Helen


08 Dec 97 - 06:25 PM (#17296)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Jon W.

On the age of the Jew's harp and blues harp (harmonica), the Lark in the Morning catalog has a few things to say. Here are some quotes:

"The sheng, also called the Chinese mouth organ, is one of the oldest Chinese instruments. It has a history of thousands of years and its manufacture and use was reported in ancient Chinese history. The sheng is the instrument that inspired the invention of the concertina, accordion and harmonica, and uses the same technology of metal reeds that vibrate as air passes through them. It has a wonderful sound, and can play melody and chordal accompaniment all at once."

"Kaen; Thai Mouthorgan - The Kaen is the oldest form of the freereed family, the great great grandaddy of the harmonica and accordion. This type of instrument goes back to at least 1100BC (the harmonica and accordion only go back to the 1830s). Made of bamboo with a brass reed in each tube."

They also list two or three types of bamboo jaw harps (as they call them) from Asia, without giving much history (also a few modern models). However, the Jew's Harp Guild website has a brief history including archaeological finds of the instrument dating back to AD 900 Japanese iron models.

So in one form or another both instruments are pretty ancient. The Jew's Harp in it's modern form outdates the modern harmonica by a wide margin. As for the origin of the term "blues harp", I don't know specifics but I do know that Hohner sells one of their standard 10-hole models under that as the trade name (another being the Marine Band).


08 Dec 97 - 10:51 PM (#17308)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Helen

Thanks Jon

These instruments are a lot older than I realised.

Helen


09 Dec 97 - 12:02 AM (#17315)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: murray@mpce.mq.edu.au

Just for the fun of it, I fed the word "harp" into the Bartelsby database (http://www.columbia.edu/acis/bartleby/) which accepts word(s) and finds them from all the books it has in electronic form:

These two quotes come from the Old Testament (54)

... We hanged our harps upon the willows.

... As for our harps, we hanged them up upon the trees.

These sound like Aeolian harps, which do hang and are made to sound by the wind blowing through their strings.

I don't know if you can make an Aeolian harp with a human breastbone.

The question of what kind of harp is meant might be entertained by the harp newsgroup. It is far less gory than the question whether a harp can be made from a breasbone.

Murray


09 Dec 97 - 10:36 AM (#17327)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Jon W.

Aeolian Harps - brilliant! That would explain the small number of strings and the ability of the harp to play by itself, as well as the small size necessitated by using a human breastbone.

Incidentally, Aeolian harp kits are available from several sources and I have also seen instructions for building them in a woodworking magazine - for those of you who want some chordal accompaniment for your wind chimes. These days they are placed in partially opened windows instead of hung in trees.


09 Dec 97 - 11:50 PM (#17343)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Jen

Yes, that is a definite possibility, thanks for the wonderful suggestion. And it would make sense...

jen


05 May 02 - 06:19 PM (#704935)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question
From: Jim Dixon

I can't resist putting my 2 cents into this discussion even though it is nearly 4 years old and the people who discussed it before are probably no longer paying attention.

The reason the "miller" used body parts to make the harp was because he was really a sorcerer who was deliberately trying to build a MAGIC harp. He succeeds. In the oldest versions of the song, the harp speaks (or sings) and names the killer, who is then gruesomely punished.

Therefore, he probably didn't need to make the ENTIRE harp out of body parts; he only had to incorporate certain parts into the harp somehow.

We don't know why he wanted a magic harp. He may have intended to expose the killer, or he may have had some other purpose in mind, and the naming of the killer was an accidental consequence.

I suspect the legend comes from a time when ordinary harps were believed to have some magical influence over people who heard their music. Maybe the miller/harper/sorcerer was trying to augment that power by magical means.

Doesn't "Jack and the Beanstalk" involve a talking harp?

I wonder how Jen's story came out?

By the way, there are a HUGE number of threads on the subject of one or more versions of the song TWO SISTERS. I am compiling a list of them, but I don't quite know what to do with it yet. Any suggestions?


05 May 02 - 07:24 PM (#704964)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question--'The Twa Sisters'
From: harpmaker

Hmmmm, I think its more probably more like this


05 May 02 - 08:55 PM (#705008)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question--'The Twa Sisters'
From: Malcolm Douglas

I've done the list already, Jim, and posted it, though one or two discussions have probably popped up since then. I don't think that much new information has been added, though.


05 May 02 - 09:18 PM (#705012)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question--'The Twa Sisters'
From: CapriUni

Naught to do with the Child ballad "The Twa Sisters" but on making harps in folklore.

One Scottish tale (which is in a book I loaned years ago, and haven't seen again) tells of a woman whose baby is snatched away by the fairies. She journeys to the Otherworld and begs to have her child back, but is told she must trade three one-of-a-kind treasures for him. One treasure is a harp she built (I think she build the frame from the bones of seabirds -- either that or diftwood) and strung with her own golden hair.

I only half remember the story, but that image seemed to capture the essence of a Mother's love...


26 Oct 05 - 03:09 PM (#1591041)
Subject: RE: Stupid Question--'The Twa Sisters'
From: GUEST,Sieffe

ok . . . I looked at the song seriously lately (about to start singing it . . .)and noted the breastbone reference . . .looked up the following http://www.labartlibrary.com/symbiosis/humanatright6.html
and noted that the sternum (real name of "breastbone") was a short usless thing incapable of being converted to anything more than a stick for a dog . . . (No, silly, you throw it so the dog can fetch, not hit the dog! . . . )
Note that on the same wonderful page there is a piccy of ribs . . . .large and curved . . they would fit the bill perfectly, if a tad tiny.
I am not sure about the soundboard but this is a fantasy song rememeber?
Always keep in mind that it played by iteslf . . .anything is possible, folks! (wish my guitar could do that trick . . that way I could accompany myself on the mandolin or dulcimer!! . . .)