“What about the tuba?”: Dorothy Ashby and the harp

Dorothy Ashby; image courtesy of spotlightonjazzpoetry.blogspot.com

Last Friday, I was catching up with Off Chances’ podcasts while wrapping up some things at work. As it was around 4:30 and the mix was food-related, I was getting hungry. My appetite intensified after hearing the opening track three times. For some reason, I haven’t gotten around to listening to late jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby. I knew of Ashby because James Murphy mentioned her in that generation-defining novelty song that launched his career. Her music is sampled by hip hop artists like Ugly Duckling, Murs, and Pete Rock. And I feel pretty ridiculous that I hadn’t noticed her work on Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and Billy Preston’s Late at Night, but this blog is as much a repository for lost treasures as anything else. But after stumbling upon the stark, elegant “Joyful Grass and Grape,” I’m hooked. Ashby fans, should I start with The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby?

Since starting this blog, I’ve always prioritized contemporary female musicians who steer away from the traditional rock set-up. Lately I keep thinking about harps, which may only rival the piano as the most conventionally feminine instrument. PJ Harvey foregrounds the autoharp on her bewitching Let England Shake, which gets better with each listen.

After seeing Joanna Newsom at the Paramount last November, it’s clear to me that the novelty of the instrument can eclipse the difficulty of playing it. Detractors may think Newsom’s association with the harp ups her quirk factor, but she’s pretty virtuosic at an unweildy instrument. It requires great strength and dexterity to pluck and strum a harp. It’s a challenging instrument to approach, as you have to straddle the instrument and nestle your head against it to see the strings. You can’t shred on it as easily as you can with a guitar, which has been naturalized as an extension of the musician’s genitalia. It’s a tricky instrument to keep tuned. What’s more, harps are really expensive. Newsom doesn’t use a practice harp from her middle school days to keep in touch with her childhood; the one she’s saving up for costs $50,000.

Ashby showcased her formidable skill with the koto on Rubiyat, which seems to employ an entire musical grammar I can’t yet wrap my head around. Being able to master two tricky instruments and create sublime music out of it? Oh yes, Dorothy Ashby, I’m going to spend more time with you.

One comment

  1. Pingback: “What about a tuba?”: Clara Rockmore and the theremin « Feminist Music Geek

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