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Australian singer/musician/composer, Tony King answers the following question...

Tony King

October 2011

The Question:
Who plays the Jaw Harp?

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When the preacher said "Wade do you take Wilma to be your old lady", Jake was already 6 years old wondering why all the relatives were sittin' on one side of the Crickle Creek church.
Jake loved Church, not because of any affinity with the Lord, but because he loved music, and was crabbier than a bear with a sore ass if he didn't get to sit behind the organist on a Sunday.
Music didn't exactly run in the family and the idea of music to Wade's ears was his pick up truck, which he said "you could hear a long time 'fore you saw it"
There wasn't a hell of a lot to do once you turned off the paved road in Crickle creek Arkansas other than puddychuckin' and fiddlefartin' and since music made young Jake hornier than a two peckered billy goat, his folks figured they should get him an instrument to keep his hands occupied in a more dignified manner.
An organ was out of the question on account of its size, which Jake was tore up about and finally his parents had eliminated all other instruments on account of their budget.
Jake was devastated and for two weeks he hauled himself around like a snakes ass in a wagon rut.
It was finally Uncle Cletus came up with the idea of giving Jake his jaw harp.
Since he was no longer in Jail and had no further need of it, the jaw harp became the property of Jake who was happier than a nine headed cat in a fish market.
Uncle Cletus never learned to play it officially and he passed the time in jail pretending the jaw harp was his sweetheart Tabitha.
Suffice to say the lessons he gave Jake on how to play it were just plain disturbing.
The upside of Crickle Creek was that in between whitlin' and fixin to die there was a huge hunk of time left in between to practice, which Jake did.
He applied himself with the tenacity of chewing gum to a boot and soon mastered the tongue action. After a few years he could finally do it without going cross eyed and dribbling too much. He could play the words to the Lord's Prayer so folks could hear it clearer than when Reverend Wesley was talkin' it!
As Jake got older though his playing hit a hurdle. His teeth defied gravity until finally he could eat corn through a picket fence. This meant he kept hitting the tongue of the harp with his teeth. As his heart was set on being a bonafide player he hatched a plan to remedy it. He went up to the tavern and got so drunk he couldn't hit his own ass with a two gallon scoop shovel. He then emptied the family repertoire of cuss words in the direction of Bathtub Billy Baisden who obliged by punching out all the offending teeth with one swing. Jake was lucky to pull it off though as Bathtub Billy was a man noted not just for his short fuse but also for his short attention span. The tricky part was "getting' him angry 'fore he forgot why"
Jake was now good enough to win the Ozark Mountain Championships Best Rising Hilly Billy Award despite the nerves getting to him.
When he received the award he said "My tongue twisted around my eye teeth and I couldn't see what I was playin'"
From then on Jake was busier than a flea in a 'coon hat factory, playing festivals and giving master classes from the Appalachians to Alabama.
When asked where people like the jaw harp, Jake used to say "anywhere where folks will shoot each other over a picnic table"
The master classes consisted of him saying "Can y'all see what I'm doin' inside my mouth? ..well neither can I? " Followed by his famous laugh "he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck" He modeled his laugh on "tryin' to start the tractor on a cold morning"
His left eye would wander 'round the room in time to the music whilst his right eye stared straight ahead. Asked why, he would say "guess I'm checkin' for exits 'case things don't pan out"
His technique consisted of "hit the tongue of the harp with your gun finger and try stuff that doesn't make folks wanna leave. If they start leavin', change what you're doin' til folks starts a comin' back"
Jake played on 500 albums and was famous for "gettin' on albums without 'em knowin". He did this usually with the co-operation of the sound engineers or mixers. He 's in the background of some very famous albums if you have the ear.
To name just a few, he played on Miles Davis "kind of Blue", Elvis Presley's Hound Dog, "Frank Sinatra's - Fly me to the moon" and even the Chicago Symphony doing Beethoven's Fifth, where he hid behind the timpani going "he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck" in time to the music, and didn't even get to play his Jaw Harp.,
He was in the remake of Deliverance, entitled Fedex, in which he played "Dueling jaw harps" by himself with two jaw harps, about which he said "he was busier than a one legged man at a butt kickin' contest"
He won a Grammy for his album "Sister, where art thou?In the kitchen you dang fool"
He released a box set of his albums, simply titled "Y'all"
He lived to a ripe old age and put the secret down to "He ain't done whitlin' yet"
His wife of 70 years Martha Mae said he was "too dang busy playin' the jaw harp to drink hisself to death"
His headstone in the Crickle Creek Cemetery simply says
"He-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck"

2011 Tony King

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